After a long international flight, it’s common to wander around in a fog for the next couple of days. It can be an issue whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure. Even Paris loses some of its appeal when seen through a sleep-deprived haze! Seasoned flyers use a few tricks to tame jet lag or defeat it altogether. Reclaim those valuable first days on the ground with these strategies.
As excited as you may be about your latest jet-setting adventure, try to get a good night’s sleep the night before you fly. Getting on the plane exhausted in order to force yourself to sleep is not just ineffective — it’s downright destructive. Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation can negatively affect your immune system. Flying is hard on a body, with all those hours of inactivity crammed together with a crowd of people (and their germs) and breathing the same canned air. Give your immune system the sleep it needs to make it through this onslaught without letting you fall sick.
In order to get your sleep patterns quickly shifted to a new time zone, give melatonin a try. Melatonin is a hormone that your body naturally creates, which regulates your sleep patterns. You can use melatonin supplements to help adjust your waking and sleeping cycles. A melatonin supplement doesn’t work like a sleeping pill; rather, it gives your body an assist, making it easier for you to naturally fall asleep at bedtime in a different time zone.
Starting a few days before your trip, take a melatonin supplement at the hour when you want to be getting sleepy in your destination time zone. Continue taking the supplement for the first few days of your trip to ease your natural cycle into a new pattern.
Get on the Clock
The most important thing you can do to minimize jet lag is to get on the local clock immediately. This can be really tough on the first and second day, but if you don’t force the issue, you’ll pay for it for the rest of your stay.
Set your watch to local time when you land, and go about the day according to local time. You may be dead on your first on that first day, and it may not feel much better on the second. But by the third day, you should be acclimatized.
Try to avoid physically or mentally challenging activities early in your stay. Choose easy, non-taxing activities: no marathon museum visits. No first-time meetings with the new in-laws. My favorite way to spend the first day on the ground is doing something outside, like hanging out in a park, taking easy walks through an interesting neighborhood, eating in an outdoor café. Keep it simple and pleasant, but do not sleep during the day.
Get a head start in reducing jet lag by exercising hard the day before you fly. Physically exhausting your body before you get on the plane will make you less restless and achy. Plus, a strenuous workout — unlike a sleep deficit — is a healthy method of relaxing the body to encourage sleep.
On the day you arrive, exercise enough to get your blood flowing and your muscles stretched. Don’t overdo it, though, since your body is already working overtime just to keep you awake.
As with sleep and exercise, eating well for the few days before a flight can help with jet lag. Load up on healthy, whole foods and avoid processed and fried stuff. Don’t be too Spartan on your travel day, though: you’ll want to arrive at the airport feeling quite full and satisfied. Once you’re in the no-man’s-land of international travel, it can be hard to find healthy food choices.
That said, it’s a great idea to pack some of your own healthy favorites. You can’t bring drinks through security, but non-liquid food is okay. If you can juggle luggage plus a goodie bag of healthy snacks, do it. Also, you may find a healthy restaurant at the airport. (This is much easier outside of North America.) If so, load up on salad and other veggies, grilled meat or fish, even a light pasta dish to satiate your hunger. But avoid the airport fast food trap. If the Golden Arches makes you feel lousy on a normal day, think how much worse you’ll feel if you load up on a burger and fries, then strap yourself into an airplane seat for hours.
Drink ridiculous amounts of water before, during, and after the flight. Flying dehydrates the body, so consume as much as you possibly can. You should be visiting those unsavory airplane lavatories just as often as you’d use the restroom on the ground. That means drinking a lot more water than you normally would. Ask the flight attendant for a whole liter bottle each time the drinks cart passes through the cabin.
Alcohol compounds the dehydration problem, and is not a good sleep strategy — not if you want to function when you stagger off the flight. If you’re trying to avoid jet lag, be prudent with your alcohol consumption. I usually have a glass of (bad) wine with my (bad) in-flight dinner to give the whole thing a thin sheen of respectability. But I stop at one. I don’t want to deal with jet lag and a hangover simultaneously.
Try some or all of these tips to make the very best of your international trip — including your first hours on the ground. With these strategies, you may find you can shake jet lag altogether.
This guestblog was written by Kim Kash who has been a writer and editor for over 20 years, many of those with Daedalus Books. The author of the bestselling Ocean City: A Guide to Maryland’s Seaside Resort (Channel Lake, 2009), Kim is a founder of the Greenbelt Farmers Market near Washington, D.C. Topics she covers as a freelance writer for range from federal government policy to yoga, food and travel. She often writes for beachbody.com which provides many effective home fitness video programs. At age 40, Kim and her husband sold everything and moved to the Middle East. Since then, she has traveled to twelve new countries and has taken up sailing, diving, and rock climbing.