I’ve taken more long-haul flights than I can count at this point. My most epically awful travel day clocked in at over 36 hours of transit, an experience I really don’t recommend you try for yourself. Unless you enjoy rocking back and forth in an airplane seat trying to remain sane. Not that I’ve done that, of course.
As a result, I’ve basically mastered the art of how to combat jet lag. The trick is not to follow a one-size-fits-all strategy. After all, as everyone’s body and sleeping habits differ, presenting one universal jet lag solution is a bit misguided. So I racked my brain to share with you my best easy jet lag tips to help teach you how to avoid jet lag like a pro.
While there are some incredibly involved strategies which require intermittent fasting, going to sleep one hour earlier for days at a time until you’re closer to your destination’s time, and eating at different hours…. ain’t nobody got time for that. Without further ado, here’s the lazy girl’s guide to beating jet lag without pesky things like forethought and discipline.
1. Combat jet lag by asking yourself this one question
I personally suffer from bouts of insomnia, and it’s far harder for me to fall asleep than to stay awake. Are you a morning or a night person? Are you one of those people who can fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow (if so, can we Freaky Friday ourselves, please?) or are you someone who can’t sleep until they’re totally physically and mentally exhausted?
Since I personally fall into the latter camp, I always opt for long-haul flights that arrive in the morning. For me, it’s far easier to drink a lot of coffee and force myself to stay awake until it gets dark at night than to arrive buzzing to a destination and try to force myself to sleep. Sure, you’re fighting jet lag the first day, but by the next morning you’ve usually adjusted.
When I went to Japan in 2013, I made the mistake of scheduling a late night flight. I napped for maybe two hours then woke up and wandered the streets in search of ramen at 3 AM. Which, of course, is not the worst outcome, but was hardly helpful at kicking my jet lag and adjusting to the new time zone.
Meanwhile, if you usually have no trouble falling asleep at home, or if you can’t sleep at all on planes, a night arrival is likely the best option.
2. Schedule your plane sleep wisely to avoid jet lag
Always set your phone or watch to your destination’s time while you’re on the flight and make efforts to sleep on their time. Airlines will usually help you out with this by following a meal schedule based on your destination. If you arrive in the morning, do your best to go to sleep about 5-8 hours before your plane is scheduled to arrive. You might not get the best quality sleep, but it’ll help combat jet lag. If you arrive in the night, try to sleep either at the very beginning of your flight or not at all.
3. For sleeping on the plane, wear a comfortable, high quality sleep mask
I hate, hate, hate those fake satin airline sleep masks they give on long hauls more than I hate most things, except maybe bananas and itchy wool sweaters. I purchased this amazing Bedtime Bliss sleep mask for my 5 month Europe trip and was so obsessed. For one, it rests gently on top of your eyes with its contoured shape, not squishing your eyelids so that you constantly feel pressure. It blacks out light completely, which is great when you’re trying to trick your body to adjust to a new time period and there’s still sunlight out where you are.
Not only is it great to combat jet lag with, it also blocks out light in hostels and on buses. I’m so obsessed with this eye mask that I quite literally had tears in my eyes when I realized I left it behind tangled in a hostel bed sheet. When I returned to the US, I made sure I bought two on Amazon for my next trip, that’s how in love I am.
4. Wear loose, comfortable clothing, lots of layers, and cozy socks
Am I the only one who gives people the serious side-eye when I see them dressed to the nines on a plane? While you won’t see me in my onesie on a plane (that’s a treat for my mom when I’m home in Cali), I always wear soft, loose-fitting pants, a T-shirt, a comfy sweater, and a scarf that is big enough to double as a blanket.
I also always bring some (clean!) fuzzy socks so I can take off my shoes ,as I can’t fall asleep with my shoes on (sorry if this is a major plane faux pas but we all gotta make sacrifices, y’all. As I once said to my friend re: the indignity of flying coach, “you can’t hurdle through the sky on a throne”). Here are a few of my plane faves… almost as comfy as a onesie but far more socially acceptable. Proper, well-timed sleep is really the key to fighting jet lag.
5. Take care about what you drink
Avoid caffeine on your flight, unless your goal is to not sleep at all so that you can arrive to your destination late at night and exhausted. And if so, make sure you have your last dose of caffeine at least 6 hours before you’re hoping to sleep at your destination. Avoid alcohol altogether — yes, even if it’s free (a little piece of me just died writing that, but trust me, guys!). It will diminish your sleep quality if you’re trying to sleep on the flight, and it’ll make you sleepy if you’re trying to stay awake. Plus, it’ll dehydrate you, which can wreak havoc on your internal systems once you land, including your sleep regulators.
If you absolutely must drink, really try to stick to one drink and have three glasses of water for every drink you consume. I know that sounds excessive, but you lose a ton of moisture on a flight. You’ll be feeling dehydrated, not to mention jet lagged, the next day. Don’t be like Kermit.
6. Indulge in some comfy headphones
Am I the only one who wakes up with shooting ear pain if I fall asleep for too long with Apple’s plastic earbuds in my ears, or am I just a candy ass? I recently upgraded to these affordable noise-cancelling headphones and I’m so in love that I’m actually considering going one step further and buying some Bose. One day, my sweet. One day. Yeah, they’re bulky, but I use them constantly when trying to fall asleep on planes and in hostels (I typically use my smaller earbuds for shorter trips and bus rides).
I love to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, meditation body scans and that sort of thing to help me drift off to sleep. Just be sure you’re not staring at your phone or even your Kindle – the blue light will mess with your sleep cycles and make it hard to sleep, thus worsening your battle with jet lag.
7. Werk those circadian rhythms
No matter how terrible you feel, the absolute worst thing you can do for yourself is deprive yourself of natural light. On your very first day, make sure you get outside early enough in the morning to get the full benefits, even if you’re feeling jet lagged. Even if you didn’t sleep a wink the night before, make sure you go out earlyish (before 10 or 11, guys!) and get sunlight for as much time as possible.
If you must nap, that’s totally cool – take a nap around 1 or 2 for no more than 2 hours or you risk making your jet lag worse. Wake up, walk around to get a bit more sunlight, and do not let yourself go to bed for the night until it’s been dark for at least two hours.
8. Take medications or herbal/natural remedies to fight jet lag
As the resident of the overly litigious United States and the daughter and niece of lawyers, lemme just say: I AM NOT A DOCTOR AND THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. This is just my experience. I always take some sort of sleep aid during my flights and first few days to combat jet lag. Usually, this is one of my sleep medications prescribed by my psychiatrist, as I have chronic insomnia unrelated to travel.
Over the counter pills like Benadryl or Tylenol PM will work for people who, unlike me, do not require the human equivalent of horse tranquilizers to sleep. There are lots of herbs I like that help me sleep: valerian root (may cause problems for some, but works for me), passionflower extract, kava kava (may cause funky dreams, you’ve been warned!), hops, and California poppy.
The best jet lag cure for me is something that combines herbs, amino acids (like trytophan, the protein in turkey that makes you sleepy), and natural hormones like melatonin. Jarrow has an amazing sleep aid that works virtually as well as my sleeping pill, which is quite literally a low-dose antipsychotic (I’m sure my pharmacists are terrified of me). If you just want the melatonin, be aware that most melatonin is dosed way too high according to recent research. My psychiatrist told me that 0.1 mg of melatonin taken 2-4 hours before sleep is ideal (most melatonin pills are 3-5 mg, which is 30-50x the ideal dosage!!). Each Jarrow pill has 0.15 mg, which is close enough for me.
If you don’t want the other herbs in the Jarrow pills, try liquid melatonin as it’s easier to get that small amount than from a pill which you have to break into tiny pieces. The one below contains 1 mg per dropperful, so you want roughly 1/10th of a dropperful or just a few drops to get the ideal effect. More won’t kill you, but it’s apparently not the ideal, as your brain produces melatonin naturally in nanogram amounts, and having a full few milligrams will overwhelm your brain. Science!
9. Engage in some light exercise to help you combat jet lag
There’s no better way to reset your internal clock and beat jet lag than to do some moderate exercise, particularly in the late morning or early afternoon. Take a really brisk walk or do a hike to get your blood pumping while absorbing plenty of natural light and Vitamin D. Alternately, if you’re really keyed up in the evenings and having trouble sleeping, try attending a yoga class sometime in the late afternoon or early evening. Or just do what I do and do a whole hell of a lot of child’s pose and call it exercise.
10. Be equipped for an upset stomach
I’m going to be a little TMI here: one unfortunate but common side effect of jet lag is constipation. With the huge time difference in Japan, jet lag totally confused my digestive system. It got to the point where I still couldn’t go to the bathroom even after day 8 of being in Japan. I felt like what I imagine a woman in her third trimester feels like; I briefly considered screaming “GET IT OUT OF ME” on the streets of Tokyo… which I imagine would not have won me any friends, nor helped my predicament.
Since I didn’t plan for this contingency and my Japanese was limited to “konnichiwa” and “sumimasen” (I somehow failed to study the Japanese word for “laxative”, clearly a rookie mistake), I improvised. So I chainsmoked a pack of cigarettes, popped a friend’s Adderall, and speed-drank a venti Starbucks light roast coffee, which tasted like garbage to me but basically worked like a colon cleanse. Don’t try this at home, folks. It worked, but I felt totally cracked out the rest of the day, which is not a cute look for me. A better choice would be to bring along a bag of dried prunes or take some herbal supplements or Metamucil to make you more regular. Learn from my mistakes. Don’t let your butt get jet lagged, too.
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