What is jet lag—and how do you get over it?

What is jet lag—and how do you get over it?

Skipping time zones can mess with your body’s internal clock. With the right gear, planning and preparation, you can adjust quickly.

Published November 21, 2022

6 min read

Hop a plane across several time zones, and you may end up with what scientists call circadian dysrhythmia (aka jet lag). It’s a temporary sleep disorder where your body’s internal clock isn’t in sync with the time cues in your destination–daylight, dark of night, mealtimes.

It’s also why you might doze off at lunch on your first day in London or be unable to get to sleep the first couple of nights of a vacation to Japan. “We have a natural rhythm to our bodies, and it’s pretty well set,” says Vivek Jain, director of the George Washington University’s Center for Sleep Disorders.

But jet lag doesn’t have to wreck your trip. “If you plan for it, you can do most of your acclimatizing to your destination a few days in advance,” says W. Chris Winter, neurologist and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.

You can use light exposure, sleep, strategically timed naps, snacks, and caffeine to ease into your new time zone. You might also consider adding new scientific innovations to your anti-jet-lag arsenal, including high-tech gadgets and safer pharmaceuticals.

Here’s what the experts suggest to help you adjust to a new time in no time.

Don’t be afraid of the dark

Blocking out light is key to getting sleep on the plane (a proven jet lag antidote on overnight flights). Wear sunglasses until you are ready to sleep, then put on a mask. Your brain starts to produce melatonin when it senses darkness. This chemical is what initiates sleep.

Get comfortable

A 2021 German study found that worrying about having jet lag made it worse. It is possible that a routine or item might help you drift off.

Use whatever tools you can to make your trip more pleasant and silent. “Basically, anything you can do to get comfortable enough to sleep can have a very strong placebo effect,” says Jamie M. Zeitzer, co-director of Stanford University’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences.

That could mean a pillow–either a traditional C-shape one or a newer wraparound model such as the Trtl or Ostrich, which resemble padded neck scarves and offer 360-degree head support. A test run of an airplane foot hammock is recommended. This hammock can be hung underneath your seat to relieve pressure on your back and legs during long flights.

Add noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to set the stage for slumber. You can mold silicone earplugs to create a seal over your ears. They are more comfortable than traditional foam ones.

Sleep on it

Taking melatonin, which is also made naturally by the body, can help you doze off in the air or in a new time zone. Although melatonin can be purchased over-the-counter, experts recommend consulting your doctor before using it. It won’t cause you to sleep for hours, unlike prescription sleep drugs.

Experts are mixed on using drugs to knock yourself out on a flight–or to quell insomnia once you’ve arrived. Over-the-counter sleeping pills (ZzzQuil and Unisom) can be used to get you out of bed. Prescription-only Zolpidem (Ambien Edluar or Intermezzo) is available. This is a sedative/hypnotic.

Both types of drugs carry risks of mental impairment and grogginess–particularly if taken with booze, as some travelers do, against prescription warnings. If Zolpidem is used frequently, it can become addictive. Zeitzer says that Ambien is safe if taken as directed. “It’s worse to have anxiety keep you from sleeping and having that ruin your trip.”

A newer class of insomnia drugs, dual orexin receptor antagonists (DORAs like Belsomra, Dayvio, Quviviq), block the receptor in your brain that helps you maintain wakefulness, especially in the evening. DORAs aren’t addictive and don’t force you to sleep.

Wake up–and caffeinate–in a new place

Try to book a flight that lands during the day, since getting out into sunlight helps reset your body clock. “It jump starts you much more quickly,” says Luxembourg-based sleep coach Christine Hansen.

If it’s morning or early afternoon when your plane lands, a jolt of caffeine can help you acclimatize. You can also eat a meal at the regular time in your destination. (One additional reason to make a beeline to that Parisian cafe for coffee and croissants. )

Do some advance planning

You can minimize jet lag by adjusting your bedtime, light exposure, and caffeine intake a few days before your trip. Smartphone apps Timeshifter and StopJetLag generate personalized pre-travel schedules and give tips on the best times of day to fly.

By early 2023, travelers will have a new tool to help them “pre-adjust” to new time zones. The Lumos Smart Sleep Mask, developed using Zeitzer’s research, emits targeted flashes of low-intensity light while you sleep. It is used the night before and first night at your destination. It is said to shift your internal clock forward by three to four hours per night, as opposed to the usual one hour per week.

A previous version of this article appeared in 2019. This article has been updated to reflect recent research.

Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Instagram.

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