Officially known as “Rapid Time Zone Change Syndrome,” jet lag messes with your sleep times and wake times as you cross into new time zones, especially when traveling east. Below, we break down tips and suggestions for getting back to a normal sleep-wake cycle as fast as possible after air travel.
How long does it take to recover from jet lag?
Everyone experiences jet lag differently. Some just feel an overwhelming feeling of sleepiness, while others feel discomfort, reduced appetite, or even stomach problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or constipation.
Despite these differences, generally speaking, the amount of time it takes to recover depends on the number of time zones you cross: one day of adjustment per time zone.
Is there anything you can do to prevent jet lag?
While you can’t entirely avoid jet lag, there are certain things you can do to mitigate its effects.
- Gradually shift your sleep cycle (aka circadian rhythm) pre-flight by getting up earlier or staying up later in order to be more adjusted once you land
- Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight since dehydration (which is common when exposed to dry cabin air) can worsen the symptoms of jet lag
Tips to help get over jet lag
1. Get outside
Natural light exposure is the most potent factor in regulating our 24-hour cycles. If you can, sneak outside for 15 minutes (morning light is best) in order to reinforce this circadian cue. This trick is particularly helpful when traveling and suffering from jet lag of just a few hours difference (not 8-12 hours). Once you get to your new location, resist the urge to take a catnap in your hotel room. Instead, get outside and chase the sunshine on that first day!
2. Go to bed and get up around the same time every day (even on the weekends)
If the schedule of when we are awake and asleep varies considerably, it can cause confusion for the body and continue to throw off the physiological processes that thrive off of the routine of a 24-hour day, resulting in never-ending feelings of perpetual jet lag that prevents healthy sleep.
3. Be strategic with the arrangement of your sleeping space
Don’t underestimate the importance of “sleep hygiene,” a broad term that encompasses a bedroom environment and daytime routines conducive to high-quality sleep. Our top tips include:
Avoid clock watching + blue light exposure
Seeing the time when waking up in the middle of the night or early morning can trigger a feeling of pressure to get back to sleep, thus activating the sympathetic system. Also, if your alarm clock has a screen, the blue light can trigger the light receptors in the eyes which, in turn, signal the time-keeper in the brain to be awake.Bright light should be avoided for the same reasons, so be sure to pack an eye mask!
Make sure the bedroom is a cool and comfortable temperature
Uncomfortable environments are physiologically activating and can run interference with the onset and/or maintenance of sleep. During certain sleep stages, our bodies do not thermo-regulate as much, so if the environment is too hot or cold, it can lead to sleep disruptions. That’s why we recommend making the bedroom a cool, comfortable temperature.
Limit sleep disruptions due to noise
This is easier said than done when you're traveling and unsure how thick the walls are where you'll be sleeping. We recommend earplugs or white noise machines. The science here is that the brain doesn't actually shut off at night while we sleep. Instead, it "downregulates" in order to continue being able to respond to threats such as a fire alarm going off. External noises may fragment sleep as the brain gets pulled to attend to the noise and ensure it does not need to respond.
4. Supplement with melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone our bodies naturally produce to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Quantities increase as the sun goes down and decrease during daytime hours. Some choose to supplement their natural melatonin levels as a way to effectively adjust and regulate their internal clocks. Proper’s Sleep + Restore supplement was specifically formulated for this reason and designed for anyone struggling with poor sleep health (falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or feeling rested upon waking) in addition to a disrupted sleep schedule due to jet lag across time zones, after a night shift, etc. It’s powered by standard melatonin, which has been shown to support the initiation of sleep, as well as MicroActive® (MA) extended-release melatonin, which has been shown in dissolution studies to provide support throughout the night rather than just during the first hour.
Yahoo!'s resident RD Lisa Moskovitz recently named Sleep + Restore the #1 sleep supplement to take while traveling.
"With 3 mg of melatonin, 100 mg of GABA, 300 mg of valerian root extract, and 125 mg of ashwagandha, your night [on Proper] will be a guaranteed snooze."
We recommend taking melatonin pre-bedtime (local time) on your first day. If you've traveled a long distance (across five time zones or more), continue taking melatonin for another four nights until you adjust to your new schedule.
5. Limit alcohol
Although alcohol can be relaxing, it may have adverse sleep effects if consumed too close to bedtime (within 3-4 hours), including fragmented and non-refreshing sleep, increased snoring, delayed onset of REM sleep (the dream stage), and more frequent bathroom breaks.
6. Resist the urge to pop an over-the-counter sleeping pill with antihistamines
Because while that "knocked-out" feeling may lead some to believe they're sleeping more (and better), science says otherwise. In fact, a Consumer Reports study found that most OTC sleep aids only increase total sleep duration by a marginal 20-30 minutes—which isn't great, but isn't horrible either. And yet, when you dig deeper, you'll find that sleep time is only half the story. Quality of sleep matters, too. And when OTC sleep aids with antihistamines are involved, quality suffers.
In order to understand why, we have to talk about acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a critical role in rapid eye movement sleep, otherwise known as REM sleep. During this time of the night, brain waves are far more active, although muscles remain fully relaxed—which is a good thing! It’s prime time for dreams to occur, and we don’t want to be acting those out. Because of the disparity between the brain's increasing activity and the muscles remaining inactive (known as atonia), REM is sometimes referred to as “paradoxical sleep.” We spend about 20-25% of our time in this stage, which benefits cognitive functions such as memory consolidation, creativity, and learning.
Because antihistamines block acetylcholine, REM sleep suffers. Instead, what you’re getting is more non-REM sleep, which is one reason why upwards of 40% of people taking OTC sleep aids report feelings of next-day fogginess or drowsiness that won't help reset your body clock or ease your symptoms of jet lag.
What to do if you can’t sleep because of jet lag?
Avoid laying there, “trying” to sleep
If you’re in bed and not sleeping after 20-30 minutes (and not feeling sleepy), then engage in a more restful activity. Examples include reading a non-stimulating book under dim lighting or going to a different room to perform the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. Getting out of bed to perform the relaxing activity is ideal, but if this is challenging or impossible, feel free to give it a go in bed.
The science behind why this is beneficial: The act of “trying” to sleep when you don’t feel sleepy engages the body’s sympathetic activation system, which can run interference with sleep.
Engage in a progressive muscle relaxation exercise
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in for 4-10 seconds, then relaxing them as you breathe out. Just be sure you’re not tensing to the point of pain or uncomfortable cramping. Relax for 15-20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group.
The science behind why this is beneficial: Stress leads to muscle tension, which makes it difficult for the physical body to relax, which makes you even more stressed. And repeat. And repeat. By engaging in progressive muscle relaxation, you’ll calm your physical body and, as a result, your anxiety levels.
Suspect you may be suffering from a sleep disorder beyond the short-term side effects of jet lag? Look out for these six signs + symptoms that it's time to seek medical advice.
Does napping help with jet lag?
If you have trouble falling asleep at night, naps may not be your best bet since they decrease the “hunger” for sleep come nighttime. That being said, if jet lag is preventing you from getting through the remainder of the day, naps are something to consider. If you are going to take a midday snooze, we recommend keeping it under 30 minutes and ideally at least eight hours prior to your bedtime.