Traveling for the Holidays? Here's How You Can Prevent (and Cure) Jet Lag

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season rapidly approaching, lots of us will be getting in planes to travel across the country—or even the world—to visit our families.

If you've ever crossed time zones in a plane, you've probably experienced a bit of jet lag, where your body clock and your surroundings just don't sync up, leaving you feeling less than stellar.

Sleepy Boo in Monsters Inc.

(Monsters, Inc. via Pixar)

We caught up with The Sleep Ambassador, Nancy Rothstein, MBA, to get the inside scoop on jet lag, why it happens and how to deal. You can thank us later.

What, Exactly, Is Jet Lag?

Nancy explains that our internal biological clocks are based on our sleep-wake cycles, which, in turn, are affected by light and dark. These biological clocks crave consistency, which means that going to bed and getting up at the same time every day will help you feel better and healthier.

So when you hop on a plane and travel across time zones, your body clock lags behind, resulting in—you guessed it—jet lag.

"You give your clock a jolt because, suddenly, your dark-light cycle has changed, sometimes drastically," she says. "Your experience of daylight and darkness differs from the rhythm you're used to and your body clock gets out of sync."

Even traveling to a time zone that differs from yours by an hour can result in jet lag. If you felt off for a bit after the end of Daylight Saving Time, you know what that's like. The effects are more dramatic with bigger changes in time.

Tiana exhausted Princess and the Frog

(The Princess and the Frog via Walt Disney Pictures)


Symptoms of Jet Lag

Jet lag has a lot of annoying symptoms, which is why it's important to to do everything you can to avoid it. According to Nancy, jet lag can make you extremely tired and irritable, and more prone to headaches and digestive problems.

If you're flying east, it can be tough to fall asleep, and if you're flying west, you may awaken early due to the difference between your biological clock and the local time. It can also affect your ability to concentrate, as well as your physical and mental performance.


Avoiding Jet Lag Before It Starts

Sometimes jet lag seems inevitable, but there are steps you can take before, during and after your flight to avoid it.

First off, be well-rested before you get on the plane.

"Be careful not to go to bed too late the night before your trip," Nancy advises. "Many people go to bed too late because they're up packing or preparing for the trip, already messing with their body clock, which is not a great way to start a trip that's crossing time zones."

For the most part, flight times will probably be in your parents' hands and not yours, but they can also play a role in whether or not you get jet lag. Red-eye flights usually contribute to jet lag because it's too hard to get quality sleep on a plane.

It's also important to eat well and exercise before a flight, and it can be beneficial to adjust your biological clock days before you set foot on the plane.

"Getting up and going to bed a little earlier if you're going east or a little later if you're going west several days before the flight can be a big help," she says.

Lilo and Stitch resting

(Lilo & Stitch via Walt Disney Pictures)


Up in the Air

Once you're actually on the plane, there are further steps you can take to prevent jet lag. Nancy recommends drinking lots of water, avoiding caffeinated drinks before you sleep, and getting up and walking around from time to time.

"Of course, you shouldn't drink so much water that you can't sleep because you have to keep getting up to use the restroom," she adds.

If you want to get the best possible sleep on a plane, you should also invest in earplugs and a sleep mask to block out unwanted noise and light. You can also ask the flight attendant not to wake you if he or she sees that you're asleep.

It's also a good idea to change the clocks on your watch or phone to the time zone of your destination to get into that mindset a bit early.


Back on the Ground

Once you land, Nancy says the most important thing is to listen to your body.

"The symptoms can take a number of days to recuperate from while your body clock adjusts to the new time zone," she explains. "The typical guideline is one day of recovery for each time zone crossed, but if you prepared properly, you can minimize that. Just be gentle and back into it, giving yourself time to adjust."

When you've arrived at your destination, napping can get you back on track if you're feeling cruddy. If you're a little tired, a short nap of a half-hour or less can do wonders, but Nancy says, "If you're so exhausted you're not functioning and you have the opportunity to take a longer nap, do it as long as it's not too close to bedtime."

Once you land, try having a light meal or snack rather than a heavy meal. If you can, avoid stress, and if it's light out, try to expose yourself to the sun and avoid staying inside all day.

"Daylight is a powerful stimulant to regulate your body clock," Nancy says.

It's great to do light exercise in the daytime, but as bedtime approaches, avoid any exercise, as well as caffeine. For the best sleep environment, try to keep the room cool, quiet and dark. As a general rule, keep it light during the day and dim at night to adjust your body the fastest.

Disney Princess Sleeping Beauty

(Sleeping Beauty via Walt Disney Productions)


So You Already Have Jet Lag

Sometimes, jet lag just can't be avoided. When that happens, there are steps you can take to get back on track.

"The first step is to get plenty of sleep," Nancy says.

And while you probably don't want to hear it, being on your phone right before bed is one of the worst things for your sleep-wake cycle. According to Nancy, the light from your phone essentially sends a signal to your brain to stop releasing the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle.

"Exposing ourselves to a lot of light before bedtime affects our sleep-wake cycles," she explains. "Instead of being on your phone, try reading a book with a dim light or do a relaxing activity. Talk to someone, and whatever you do, no matter how tempting it is, don't look at your phone."

If you're tossing and turning in bed, don't fight it. Instead, get up, walk around and do something relaxing. You'll only frustrate yourself by forcing sleep, so only lie back down when you're actually tired.

"Just listen to your body," Nancy advises. "What is it saying to you? If it's saying that you're not having a good time because you're so tired, don't feel like you have to stay awake just because you're on vacation."


Having trouble sleeping? Click HERE to find out what's probably ruining your sleep—and how to fix it.