How to Beat Jet Lag

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If you’re lucky enough to be vacationing in a different time zone – from Hawaii to the Maldives, Bora Bora or the Bahamas – you might be a little too excited about your upcoming trip to think about jet lag.

Hot tropical days… and going to bed early because you can’t keep your eyes open any longer.

Glorious sunrises… which you see every single day because you’ve already been awake for hours.

… wait, that doesn’t sound right!

But whether it’s when you’re awake in the middle of the night during your vacation, or struggling to adjust to your routine when you get back home, take it from me – you’ll be wishing you had made plans to stop jet lag in its tracks. Otherwise known as desynchronosis or time zone change syndrome, jet lag can turn your post-holiday-high upside down faster than you can say “unpacking.”

Here at keepinspiring.me, we’ve got first-hand experience of crossing time zones and handling the jet lag symptoms it brings. So whether you’re an intercontinental frequent flyer, or are embarking on your first long-haul trip, we think there are always new things to learn!

What is jet lag? And why do we get it?

Jet lag, also called jet lag disorder, is a temporary sleep problem affecting those who travel quickly across multiple time zones.

It is caused by the fact that our bodies have their own internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which signals your body when to stay awake and when to sleep. Jet lag occurs in many people who travel because their body’s clock is still synced with their original time zone (typically, home) rather than the time zone they’ve traveled to.

It stands to reason that the more time zones you cross when traveling, the more likely you are to experience jet lag – especially if you travel in an easterly direction. Traveling east means you “lose” time, rather than “gaining” it flying west, and is responsible for most jet lag cases.

Jet lag symptoms tend to occur within a day or two of traveling across at least two time zones. It usually takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed, which can be especially problematic if you’ve travelled from San Francisco to Sydney (an incredible 17 hour time difference).

Several maps rolled up in front of a large globe map for travel planning
“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag

What does jet lag feel like?

Everyone knows that a day’s travel – even if you stay in the same time zone – can make you feel pretty lousy. But how do you separate post-travel tiredness from actual jet lag?

We all experience jet lag differently, and some people don’t experience it at all. In general, though, you’ll probably find yourself struggling with at least one (and likely many more) of the following symptoms:

  • Disturbed sleep, including insomnia (an inability to fall asleep), early wakefulness, and/or excessive tiredness
  • Fatigue during the day
  • Feeling disoriented, getting headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks that you would usually find it easy to complete
  • Stomach issues including constipation and diarrhea, because circadian rhythms don’t just rule our sleep-cycle, they are also responsible for hunger and bowel habits
  • Generally feeling unwell
  • Mood swings

As your body works to align your circadian rhythms to your new location, symptoms of jet lag begin to lessen and you are able to get back on track.

What can I do to beat jet lag?

Don’t panic. Jet lag sounds and feels pretty awful, but the good news is there is plenty you can do to prepare for it.

From the latest supplements to luxury travel aids, affordable hacks and old wives tales, we’ve put together the definitive guide to beating jet lag – before you fly, on the plane, and when you arrive.

Read on, travelers!

A man staring down a sunny Dorsoduro canal in Venice, Italy
“So much of who we are is where we have been.” – William Langwiesche

1. Stay Hydrated

We should all be staying hydrated. The Institute of Medicine recommends that we drink ten cups of water each day, however, most of us are only managing about 1.8 cups. That means that about 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated everyday without even knowing it, a number that rises sharply when you bring travel into the mix.

Most of us avoid drinking fluids on planes for fear of needing to disturb our neighbor (or gross airplane bathrooms). However, doing so could actually make you more susceptible to jet lag.

Though research has suggested that changes in cabin pressure at high altitudes can make jet lag worse, it’s also worth noting that humidity levels are extremely low in planes. Lower humidity levels can exacerbate dehydration, especially if you don’t drink enough water during your flight. Dehydration can cause general malaise, tiredness, and constipation – and that’s before you’ve crossed any time zones at all.

Fight dehydration and beat jet lag by putting an empty Brita filtering water bottle in your carry on. It’s available in BPA free plastic or insulated stainless steel, and holds up to 26 ounces of fresh water. The filter is enclosed inside the straw, and it can (miraculously) make that chlorinated airport water you load up on after security taste good.

Remember to make sure it’s empty and fill onboard so you don’t lose it at security! Sip throughout your flight to ensure your body stays healthy and hydrated. And remember, getting up to use the bathroom is a good way to stretch your legs!

2. Energize Your Legs

As a frequent flyer myself, I find that stiff and tired legs are one of the worst things about flying. Feeling uncomfortable not only spoils the first days of my holiday, but it also makes it much less likely that I’ll sleep on the plane – an essential way to fight the jet lag that accompanies red-eye flights.

Standing in lines, sitting in waiting areas, and sitting on the plane for hours on end led me to hunt for anything that might help my legs and feet feel more comfortable when traveling. For that reason, I can confidently say that these COMRAD compression socks are literally one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

Compression socks aren’t all created equal, which is why this company has spent a great deal of time (and money) creating the very best product possible. They provide graduated compression from the tip of the foot all the way up the calf, unlike the regular compression socks you can pick up in the airport. Compression garments aim to boost and improve your blood circulation whether you’re standing up, running, or sitting down on a plane.

The socks come in a variety of shoe and calf sizes, and genuinely make my legs feel fresher and healthier after a flight. As a side note, these socks look great! They’ve all but eradicated my worries about Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), which can affect frequent fliers.

A table covered in opened road maps of the United States and Canada
“Don’t just listen to what they say. Go out and see it.”

3. Do Your Home-work

As silly as it might sound, one of the best ways to prepare for a time-zone shift is to adjust your schedule in advance. If you know you’ll be flying east, try going to bed an hour (or more!) earlier than your usual bedtime for at least three days before you fly; or an hour later for those flying west.

You might also try to eat a little earlier or later than you usually would (especially at breakfast and dinner) to help your digestive system prepare for a time shift.

This isn’t something that everyone can do, especially if you’re traveling for business and have deadlines to meet before you go. But if you’re traveling long distances with children, especially young children, it’s worth taking the time to help their schedules adjust – before you’ve even left the ground. Once you’ve left home, you can continue to adjust your schedule as you travel.

If you’re flying overnight, wear comfortable clothing and cover yourself with a soft blanket or scarf to encourage those sleepy-time feelings. Planes can be really cold (as well as dry) and the blanket provision is woeful, so my favorite wrap does double duty as a scarf and blanket. It’s soft and lightweight (so it doesn’t take up too much space in my bag if the gate area is stuffy), big enough to wrap around myself, and has an air-activated warmer which slips into the neck to help me drift off to sleep.

If you’re looking for a super luxe option – perhaps as a gift for a special someone who travels to visit you – cashmere is a wonderfully soft natural fibre that keep you warm and cozy, without weighing you down. Getting prepared before you go, whether it’s adjusting your eating and sleeping schedule, or ensuring you’ll be as comfortable as possible mid-flight, is one of the best ways to beat jet lag.

4. Cancel the Noise

Any frequent flyer will tell you that cancelling out those pesky plane noises is crucial to getting some sleep and beating jet lag. Whether its fellow passengers, food and drink announcements, or the roar of the air circulation, you’ll sleep better or enjoy your favorite music or shows when you aren’t interrupted.

A good pair of noise-cancelling headphones can help, and they are available at pretty much every price point imaginable. I personally believe – in life and during travel – that small is beautiful, so I prefer this compact Bose pair. They don’t take up too much space in my carry on, and have a handy storage case to protect them when they aren’t in use.

There are noise cancelling headphones for everyone – including kids – and I encourage you to browse online to find the perfect pair for you. What works for one person might not work for another, so read plenty of reviews and do your own research before buying.

Once you’ve got your headphones, create a playlist on iTunes or Spotify and include all your favorite sleepy-time tunes. Can’t fall asleep to music? You aren’t alone. Download an audiobook or simply use your headphones without sound to cancel out the ambient noise of the cabin.

A man photographing a United 737 from inside an airport Terminal at IAH
“Live with no excuses and travel with no regrets.”

5. Seek the Sun

You’re on the ground. Now what do you do? Well, regulating your exposure to bright light is essential in the fight against jet lag. That’s because light exposure is one of the most important influences on your body’s circadian rhythm.

Consider the direction you are flying. Generally speaking, exposure to light in the evening helps you adjust to a time zone that is later than your usual one (ie. traveling westward), while exposure to morning light can help you adapt to an earlier time zone faster (ie. traveling eastward). Traveling from Boston to London; New York to Venice; or Chicago to Paris? Be sure to get out and make the most of those cool, quiet early mornings before it gets busy, because that’s when your body needs the sunlight.

If you have traveled more than eight time zones, however, it can be easy for your body to get confused – mistaking early morning light for evening dusk, and vice versa. Traveling Eastwards? Try wearing sunglasses in the morning, and then allow as much sunlight as possible in the late afternoon for the first few days of your trip. Traveling West? Avoid strong sunlight a few hours before dark for the first few days to adjust to the local time.

6. Live Local

Tempting though it may be to climb into that soft hotel bed when you first arrive, beating jet lag means you’ve got to start adopting the local mindset from the moment you arrive.

Set your watch, phone, tablet or smart watch to your new time zone before your flight departs. That way, whenever you look at the time during your flight, you’ll be adjusting to the time at your destination. This is especially helpful when you are traveling overnight.

Avoid falling into bed when you arrive, or napping during the afternoon. You’ll sleep deeply and find it more difficult to get to sleep that night and the ones that follow. Instead, try not to sleep until the local nighttime, no matter how tired you are. Keep moving, have a coffee, sit in the sunshine.

Help your digestive system adjust by timing your meals with local mealtimes too, even if it means you have to eat a few more snacks than usual. Pick up some healthy, energizing snacks to keep you going til lunch or dinner – nuts, dried fruit, or dark chocolate are all great options.

A backpack, foreign currency, and plane ticket laid out before a trip abroad
“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.” – Dalai Lama

7. Ground Yourself

This jet lag cure could fall into the category of old wives tales – though there is growing evidence to support its effectiveness – but it is also the easiest and simplest thing to do. It involves grounding yourself to the earth.

Erin Magner, a travel writer and contributor to well+good, describes the practice as “a little-known ritual called earthing, which involves making direct contact between your bare feet (or other body parts) and the ground.”

It sounds simple because it is simple! All it takes to ground yourself is to sit or stand on grass, soil, or sand.

Earthing or grounding is said to help you overcome the effects of jet lag in various ways. Contact with the ground helps you soak up the earth’s negative charge, which can help reduce inflammation (great for those who struggle with water retention and soreness during/after traveling) and leave you feeling refreshed. Scientists have also suggested that that grounding helps improve sleep, normalizes stress hormones, improves immune response, and more.

Old wives tale or not, standing barefoot in the grass is one of my favorite ways to beat jet lag when coming back to the U.S. from Europe.

8. Sleep Well

Rest can prove elusive when you’re traveling, but sleepless nights will quickly catch up with you – leaving you feeling exhausted and compromising your immune system.

Whether you travel regularly for business or hardly at all, the one purchase you should absolutely make is a high quality sleep mask. This one is my favorite because it is made out of 100% cotton, is hypoallergenic, anti-dustmite, and anti-bacterial. Though it’s bigger than your average freebie mask, its larger size means it blocks out pretty much 100% light to help you fall asleep – and stay asleep – more easily.

Your sleep-wake cycle is controlled by melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that is primarily released by the pineal gland. This pea-sized gland is located just above the middle of the brain, and is inactive during the day. When it gets dark, the pineal gland is “turned on” and begins to actively produce melatonin. Melatonin is released into the blood, and as the levels rise you begin to feel less and less alert. Melatonin stays in your blood for about 12 hours – through the night – before the light of a new day means it pretty much disappears altogether.

If you’re crossing many time zones and want to beat jet lag, I highly recommend taking a natural melatonin supplement with you to help you stick to a normal sleep routine. My all-time favorite is MidNite, a drug-free blend of melatonin, lemon balm, chamomile and lavender. It doesn’t need to be taken with water, and won’t make you feel groggy in the morning.

I’ve found that this combination of natural melatonin and a sleep mask is the most effective way to beat jet lag and make the most of my trip. Oh, and one final thing – set an alarm. It might be a holiday, but you’ll be disappointed if you sleep til midday and miss out on all of the amazing sites you wanted to visit!

9. Take Your Vitamins

In an ideal world, we should be getting all of our key vitamins and nutrients from our diet. However, when you’re travelling, it can be difficult enough to follow your regular diet – let alone making sure you are getting an adequate quantity of vitamins and minerals.

Unfortunately, flying long haul can put us at risk of infection – both viral and bacterial. Nothing spoils your holiday more than a cold or ear infection that has been so thoughtfully passed on by a fellow passenger on your flight to Japan.

Though we can’t control those around us, we can make sure that we give our immune systems the support they need when we’re travelling. Rather than carrying blister packs of tablets, I prefer this liquid Immune Booster. It’s a combination of Vitamin C (essential in avoiding and fighting infections like cold and flu) and natural Echinacea, which help to boost your body’s natural defences against disease. It comes in a 2oz dropper bottle, so you can easily slip it into your carry on bag. It can be used by the whole family, and you can start using it before you go without fear of running out.

Like many people, I find that my digestive system is much slower to catch up with my new time zone than my sleep-wake cycle. A few years ago, I found that taking a probiotic capsule two weeks before, during, and after my trip helped my stomach adjust better. Unlike so many others on the market, this ultimate probiotic doesn’t require refrigeration so you can take it with you. It does double duty by supporting your digestive system in the transition, and giving you an extra immune boost!

A woman looking out the window of a United flight over Newark from an Economy Plus seat
“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” – Confucius

10. Don’t Stress

Traveling is stressful enough without worrying about if or when you might struggle with jet lag.

My most recent find is the Calm app, which you can download onto your phone and use whenever you need a quiet few minutes. It provides a selection of calming music, guided meditations, and sleep stories to help calm and soothe you – whatever situation you find yourself in.

It works as a subscription service, and I have found it to be an invaluable travel resource. To beat jet lag, I put my headphones on and listen to the music to prompt me to fall asleep while I’m on the plane, and play the sleep stories whenever I settle down for the night (even if I don’t feel too tired). Using Calm makes me feel a little more in control of my schedule, and that helps me to adjust to time zone changes more quickly.

Wherever you’re traveling, I hope these tips will help you make the very most of your trip! I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for beating jet lag. Drop me a line in the comments below!

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Natalie Seale

Natalie Seale is a writer, researcher, and editor for keepinspiring.me. She holds an MA, MSc, and PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh, and has started two businesses since 2011. Natalie is an avid reader, a keen traveller, and enjoys cooking and walking with her English Spaniel. Her posts focus on inspiring others to live healthy, happy, and active lives.