How to fight jet lag: don't let crossing a time zone leave you exhausted - tips for adjusting your body clock

Jet lag can be a serious drag - but it doesn't have to ruin your trip. Here are medically advised, tried and tested ways to mitigate the effects of airplane travel

How to combat jet lag: adjusting your body clock to a new time zoneHow to combat jet lag: adjusting your body clock to a new time zone
How to combat jet lag: adjusting your body clock to a new time zone

I once spent 32 hours in transit, 27 hours of them on various planes, immigrating from Edinburgh Scotland to Melbourne Australia, arriving at my destination at 6am local time. To say the ensuing jet lag was unpleasant is a bit like saying death is a nap. Determined to push on through to the evening to acclimatise to Aussie time, I found myself wandering the sun-bleached neighbourhood of Fawkner, my soul hovering, wraith-like, above me, crying at the sight of Toffee Pop biscuit advertising (only available in the Antipodes, not back in the UK), before falling into a crumpled sleep on the sofa at 12pm. It took two weeks to adjust my body to its new time zone, during which time existential crises, headaches and weeping were common.

I have, perhaps in an act of lunacy, written about the curious charms of jet lag, how that out of space, out of body feeling can be quietly profound. But I am acutely aware that in many cases it's seriously tedious, and can gravely impact whatever you travelled for in the first instance. I am not talking about the slight wobble that comes with a short haul flight, but the surreal, sometimes hallucinogenic state that comes with long-haul flying, where your poor, displaced frame is both exhausted and wired, jumpy and fragile. It's debilitating, particularly if you have things you need to get on with, be it a working holiday, an important wedding, or you just want to get to enjoying yourself.

What to do in the lead up to flying

Start easing your body into the new time zone ahead of travel

Starting to train your body into a new time zone in the week leading up to travel can make a big difference to how your body handles the transition. So, if you are travelling east, start going to bed an hour earlier three days before travelling, waking up an hour earlier. Do two hours different to your usual time the next day, and three the day before. When you arrive there, keep making the transition incrementally, until you are on local time. It may not work perfectly - try not to fret if you find it difficult to drift off (I find an eye mask, a warm bath, and clean sheets the best way to get kip earlier than I'm accustomed to) - but making even part of the transition early will ease your way when you arrive. Heading west? Use the same system, but in reverse - i.e. go to bed an hour later, etc.

What to do on the plane

There is some debate about whether or slumber on a plane or not - the endocrinologist John Conaglen, who conducted studies on how to mitigate the effects of jet lag, advises that any sleep you can grasp on the plane is good - it will not harm you, indeed, it may help.

Additionally, try not to take too many stimulants (ease off the coffee) or depressants (pump the breaks on the drinks trolley, sorry).

Do drink plenty of water, and periodically get up to move around the cabin, stretching your legs. This will also help you avoid a DVT, if your circulation is sluggish.

Flying to the other side of the world

If your trip is a seriously long haul one - I'm talking in excess of 24 hours, such as the mammoth UK-New Zealand journey I've done too many times - I can not recommend breaking up the journey with a stop over and sleep in a hotel room half way through highly enough, even if the stay is literally long enough for nothing more than a 5-8 hour sleep.

It is the 'slow is fast' approach, where the seeming delay can be the difference between arriving at your final destination vaguely human or disembarking your aircraft haunted and shrivelled, a transcontinental White Walker.

What to do when you arrive

Get as much natural light as possible: it helps reset your biological clock to that destination

Your body will better adjust to the local time if you expose it to sunlight - if you can do it while you're on the move, so much the better. I find, almost paradoxically, that a decent run when I get in helps my body perk up and last through to bed time - if you lack my insane proclivity towards exercise, a good walk will still prove very beneficial.

Live like your doctor always wants you to

I am so sorry to be boring - or indeed, a scald - but when you arrive at your destination, try to make sure the food you're eating is nutritionally rich, fibre-dense (jet lag can cause constipation), and that you are chugging water back. Again, try to limit caffeine while your body is catching up with its new surroundings. Rich food and alcohol isn't helpful, either, so if you're in town on hope of debauching, save it for a few days in.

If you do nap during the day, set a timer for 30 minutes

The aim is to make it through to a decent bed time at your destination, of course. But it can behove you to lose one jet lag battle to win the war: a brisk 30-60 minute nap - timing rigorously observed - may help you perk up enough for the rest of the day to make it to night time, and sleep more restfully. Only do this if you're disciplined enough to spring up when the alarm sounds, mind you.

Take melatonin to help you sleep

Endocrinologists have conducted studies on the effectiveness of melatonin for combatting jet lag. Melatonin is a natural hormone, produced in the brain when it is dark, that facilitates our ability to sleep. Unlike sleeping drugs, it doesn't leave you feeling sluggish and out-of-sorts the next day, and it isn't addictive. Taking a melatonin supplement half an hour before sleep will help quiet your brain, silencing the signal that you should be awake, to aid slumber.

In the UK, melatonin is a prescription medicine - you may be able to procure it through the NHS. If you can't, however, it is readily available in drug stores in other countries: I stock up on pharmaceutical grade melatonin when in the States, where you can easily get it at a Walgreens or CVS. It has been a jet lag game changer for me.

Get up in the morning

Set an alarm for a reasonable hour, get up in the morning, and explore. Resist the urge to languish in bed like a traveller with a Victorian wasting disease. You'll be glad of the stimulation, and your body will adjust to local time swifter if you don't have a long lie in.

After more travel advice? Check out our guide to how to packhow to take a great holiday photograph, how to keep your money safe overseas, and what to consider when buying travel insurance.

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