With all the travel I have done, I never knew how bad jet lag could be—until I returned from India.
I have traveled:
- LA to London. 8 time zones. I went straight into three days of meetings and networking when I landed. No problem, though I used melatonin to help with that trip.
- Toronto to Amman, Jordan. 7 time zones. I was a little tired but nothing that could interfere with the thrill of exploring that country.
- Delhi to Toronto. 10 1/2 time zones. I thought I might die.
Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it was bad.
Jet Lag Symptoms: More Than a Simple Sleep Problem
Some people proudly say they've never experienced jet lag.
I say they just haven't experienced it yet.
It can happen to anyone, even travelers who regularly fly across multiple time zones without any trouble. You may not experience it for years and then suddenly, for some reason, on one trip, it will happen.
The Mayo Clinic describes jet lag as a temporary sleep disorder. I experienced it as much, much more. It wasn't just a matter of being sleepy at the wrong time. I actually felt sick–so sick that I went to the doctor to ensure that I hadn't picked up a bug or parasite while traveling. I was a total mess.
It is generally accepted that it takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed. Sure, but that's for the occasional traveler. Me? I travel all the time. This rule of thumb couldn't apply to me!
Well, it did. I crossed ten time zones and on the tenth day I finally started feeling a bit better. However, it took longer still. It was a good three weeks before I really felt somewhat normal.
Jet lag is the result of interfering with our circadian rhythms, our internal clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake. When we travel to different time zones, our bodies are still synced with our home zone when we arrive, causing us to be tired or awake at times that don't coincide with our new destination. The Mayo Clinic identifies six jet lag symptoms:
- disturbed sleep — such as insomnia, early waking or excessive sleepiness
- daytime fatigue
- difficulty concentrating or functioning at your usual level
- stomach problems, constipation or diarrhea
- a general feeling of not being well
- mood changes
I had all of them plus more, including:
- sore muscles
- hunger but feeling ill if I ate
- feeling disoriented
- lack of energy
Readers have mentioned additional symptoms:
- motion sickness
- headaches and back aches.
- swollen feet and ankles
- ringing ears
- lack of appetite
Jet Lag Prevention
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has a few recommendations for preventing jet lag.
- Before you go. Ease yourself into your future local time zone before you leave by going to bed closer to the time zone of your destination and getting up closer to that time zone as well. Here's a sleep planning tool to consider.
- Drink lots of water during your flight. My rule is to take water on board with me and never decline water when it's offered by the flight attendants. The Aerospace Medical Association suggests about eight ounces of water for every hour you’re in the air. The longer the flight, the more hydration matters.
- Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol. Both alcohol and caffeinated drinks dehydrate your body. Stick with water, or, if you want to have a drink, balance it out with an additional 8 ounces of water.
- Live the local time zone fast. As soon as you get to your destination live in the local time zone. Don't try to ease into it. Embrace it.
- Go outside for natural light. This will help your body and its circadian rhythms adjust to the time zone. If you're feeling disoriented, don't go far from your hotel. Perhaps you can find a park nearby or a bench at a bus stop. It doesn't have to be exciting, it just has to expose you to natural light.
- Avoid naps. Naps will interfere with your ability to adjust to the local time zone. So, if possible, don't take them.
Of these jet lag prevention strategies, one of the most effective (but perhaps most difficult to remember to do) is adjusting your sleeping patterns well before you leave home. Jay Olson, a PhD Candidate at Montreal's McGill University, has developed a free tool called Jet Lag Rooster to help shift your body clock to reduce or prevent jet lag symptoms. You enter your travel details–departure and arrival cities and times, normal sleep and wake times, and the number of days you have to prepare for your departure–and it will instantly provide you a personalized sleep chart and jet lag prevention plan.
Jet Lag Rooster is recommended by the Center for Disease Control. You can enter your details and get your personal plan here.
Jet Lag Remedies
If your symptoms go beyond sleepiness to you feeling ill, you'll need to work harder at a recovery. If you are suffering, here are some recommendations for jet lag remedies.
- Eat well. Nourish your body with what it really needs. Protein, fruits, and vegetables and only some carbs.
- Sleep at night and take controlled naps during the day. I know this contradicts the suggestion above but if you're really not well you may have to nap. I did. But set an alarm so that you don't nap for hours.
- Get lots of exercise. If you're going to nap during the day, exercise is absolutely necessary to make you tired so that you can sleep at night. Don't go crazy. Your body is in recovery mode. But a good walk, whatever you're capable of, can be beneficial
- You could try melatonin. Some people swear by melatonin. I found it to be helpful but I'd suggest taking a small dose to start. On my flight between LA and London I took it (possibly too much) and when I awoke during my flight I was awake but couldn't open my eyes. It was weird. I talked myself to calm and quickly fell asleep again. So use with caution.
- Drink lots of water. Our bodies always benefit from water.
- Drink ginger tea if your stomach is upset. A natural product is always best.
- Hang in there. It will pass.
Don't Let It Stop You from Traveling
I've never had jet lag as bad as I had it back in 2012 again. So please, don't let one bad experience interfere with your travels. Here are some posts you may want to read for inspiration.
- Start with The Ultimate Solo Travel Guide: Travel Alone & Love It.
- Check out our list of tours specifically for solo travelers.
- Know that everyone travels for the first time at some point. Read First Time Solo Travel: Tips for Newbies.
- Learn how to Get Through an Airport by Yourself.
- Check out our list of budget destinations that are updated yearly.