What Causes Jet Lag—Plus 7 Ways to Avoid it

What Causes Jet Lag—Plus 7 Ways to Avoid it

Taking a long flight? Here’s how to deal with the disruption to your sleep cycle.

You probably love racking up frequent flyer miles but dread the jet lag that comes with traveling between time zones. According to the American Sleep Association, anyone can experience jet lag, and 93 percent of us do at some point in our lives. Read on for more about what jet lag is, why you get it and what you can do to reach your destination feeling refreshed, rather than ragged.

What is jet lag?
Jet lag occurs when your body’s biological clock is thrown out of whack. Our bodies operate on circadian rhythms—determined by the rise and fall of your body temperature, hormone levels and other biological conditions—that follow a 24-hour cycle. These rhythms are all influenced by exposure to sunlight, cuing us when to sleep and when to wake up. When your internal clock is out of sync with your time zone, you’re apt to feel tired, disoriented and you may experience insomnia. Other jet lag symptoms include mild depression, concentration issues and nausea.

7 ways to ease jet lag
The last thing you want to do on vacation is deal with exhaustion and moodiness. And while it’s difficult to avoid jet lag altogether, there are some ways to make the transition easier. 

1. Don’t leave home exhausted: Adjusting to a new time zone will be easier if you’re not sleep deprived before you even hit the road. Don't stay up all night packing. Prepare yourself ahead of time and get a good night's sleep the night before your trip.

2. Practice the new schedule beforehand: You’ll also want to adjust your sleep and wake times, depending on where you’re going. If you’re traveling east to Europe or Asia, start going to bed earlier and waking up earlier about four to seven days before your trip. Waking up 15 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour earlier and going to bed earlier will help.

3. Steer clear of stimulants: Stimulants like caffeine and energy drinks are going to make it harder for your clock to adjust. Avoid alcohol as well—especially on the day of travel—but even a couple days beforehand. 

4. Take the timing of your travels into consideration: The time you arrive at your destination is a big factor when it comes to the severity of your jet lag. Light is one of the biggest cues to our circadian rhythm, so exposing yourself to light in the new time zone is going to help retrain your brain. 

If you're going east, plan to arrive in the afternoon for exposure to sunlight; this will help advance your internal clock. You don’t want to arrive in the dark, and then go straight to sleep.

5. Stay hydrated: Dehydration can cause fatigue,so drink more water than usual and steer clear of dehydrating drinks like coffee and alcohol.

6. Change the time on your watch: As soon as you step on the plane, switch your watch and smartphone to the new time zone. This will get your brain thinking on the new time zone as soon as possible.

7. Remember that it takes time to get back on track: It takes about a day to adjust per each time zone traveled.  For example, it would take at least four or five days to get back on track when returning from a trip to Europe.  If you’re traveling to Asia—through 11 time zones—it may take up to 12 days to get back on track.

If you are able, schedule a few buffer days after returning from a trip so that you have time to re-adjust before heading back to work or school. And be patient—everyone’s body is different. The time it takes for you to get back on track may be different than the time it takes another family member to recover.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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