Whether you are a frequent flyer or seasonal traveler, you have probably already experienced the notorious jet lag at least once.
It is, at the same time, the worst enemy and faithful companion of every traveler.
Unfortunately, with long flights and layovers, it is hard to avoid jet lag.
Short trips are one way to get around it, but only when they are scheduled during the daytime.
A two-hour-long flight at 2 AM will also disrupt your sleep routine.
We choose our destinations based on our vacay preferences, and we hardly even consider are we traveling east or west, because it is irrelevant for our travel plans.
On the other hand, in terms of jet lag, it seems that it is not so meaningless.
Apparently, traveling east is going to cause far worse jet lag symptoms than going west.
Of course, no one is going to cancel their trip because of that or go the other way around the globe, but it is interesting to know because it helps us prepare better.
Jet lag is a blanket term that stands for various symptoms people experience when flying and changing time zones.
This temporary disruption of our sleep-wake pattern is our body’s natural reaction to being thrown into a different time zone.
Our circadian rhythm is synced with the shift of lightness and darkness in our surroundings, so when we travel through time zones, we can expect that our sleep-wake cycle will have to change upon our arrival to the new destination.
To the East or West?
Do you know how it is always easier to stay up a little bit more and go to bed later than to fall asleep earlier when you are not even tired enough?
Well, that is the difference between traveling to the east or the west.
Going eastward is like traveling forward through time. For example, when in Miami it is 11 PM, in Paris it is only 5 AM.
So when you are flying to Europe, you are going to arrive exhausted from your long flight, and proper bedtime is not going to be anytime soon.
You can either let go and fall asleep early and then wake up at 2 AM to explore the nightlife in Paris or struggle to stay awake until the evening hours.
Both options are complicated; you can choose to suffer a bit on the first day and then wake up the next morning, all fresh and ready to explore.
If you fall asleep earlier, you are risking to suffer from jet lag a few days longer and to struggle with normal functioning.
Traveling eastward shortens our day, while when we are going west, we get more time, so it is like our day had more than 24 hours.
Changing only one or two time zones will not strike you so hard, but the more time zones you go through, the more severe symptoms you can expect.
It is believed that our body needs one full day to recover for every time zone we traveled through.
For example, a flight from Austin to London crosses six time zones and therefore it could take six days for your body to feel like normal again.
Jet Lag Symptoms
From fatigue, nausea, and pure physical pain, I have been through it all, so here is the list of the most common symptoms you can expect, and later on, I will share my tips for dealing with them.
The most common consequences are disrupted sleep routine and insomnia-like symptoms.
Depending on how far you are from your time zone, you can experience daytime sleepiness, waking up before the dawn, or the inability to fall asleep at night.
Pretty much all the other symptoms come from poor sleep and sleep deprivation.
You are not thinking; clearly, you are out of focus, so it affects your decision making and leads to many errors.
Many people have headaches and even nausea; unfortunately, it is all normal.
Mood swings are another thing that you can expect.
Irritability, strong emotional reactions, grumpiness, sadness, happiness, and then all over again, without any particular order. In one single day.
This rollercoaster of different feelings is hard to control, and it affects your travel partner or group, so keep that in mind because it can ruin your relationships with people and also your vacation.
If you have a sensitive stomach, then you can assume how it will react to specific changes, so it is another thing to think about.
Constipation and diarrhea are the usual symptoms of it.
Be careful with food choices on the plane; it is not the best time to indulge in local cuisine or experiment with food.
But a nervous stomach is not only triggered by food. If you are feeling anxious or exhausted, it also affects it.
Tips for Hacking Jet Lag
After numerous jet lag experiences over the years, I must say that it does not get much more comfortable, but I have learned what to do to mitigate the symptoms and make the transition as smooth as possible.
Another thing is, I am always extremely positive when traveling.
It does not matter where am I going, or how long I am staying, nothing can ruin my mood and readiness to explore and run even on inadequate sleep.
However, I am aware that that is not the case with everyone.
I have also had some rough experiences before, sometimes it just not my day, and I have seen how my travel companions struggle in different ways.
So based on that, here is my small contribution to this hot topic among travelers. Want to know how to fight jet lag? Then keep reading.
Choose flights that arrive in the local evening hours
Since sleeping is a huge factor for overcoming jet lag, my first and most important tip is to always go for flights that arrive in the local evening hours.
When I was younger, I always went for overnight trips because I wanted to arrive in the morning and have a full first day.
However, during that day, I would be so tired, and I would usually give up and fall asleep at some point during the afternoon, and then wake up in the middle of the night. Ooops.
Learn from my mistakes; it is not worth it.
Advance your circadian rhythm
If you have time, I advise you to prepare for your trip to the east several days before by advancing your circadian rhythm.
A week before your journey, try going to bed slightly earlier than usual.
You will also wake up earlier and be able to adapt to a new time zone quicker.
When going west, do the opposite thing and stay up a bit longer.
Arrive a few days early for scheduled events
When traveling for work meetings, or some important events that you have to attend, it would be better to arrive at the destination at least two days earlier.
I was once a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding, and I could not get enough days off work, so I arrived basically on the day of the wedding.
Worst thing ever, I was dead before the cake arrived, and I do not have to mention how I looked on the pictures. Not good.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol
I know that some airline companies offer plenty of refreshment drinks and coffees, but that is not the best choice on a long flight.
Taking caffeine and alcohol will only make you dehydrated, which will also impact your symptoms of jet lag.
I always drink only water, it keeps me hydrated, and I find it better for my stomach too.
Sitting for several hours can become painful, so when you notice signs of discomfort, take a brief walk to stretch your legs.
Plan ahead for overnight flights
For overnight flights, pack the right equipment, and try to sleep at a time when it is nighttime on your destination.
I recommend packing a small sleep-aid kit, which includes earplugs, eye masks, earphones, and a neck pillow.
Wear comfortable clothing, and use some of these sleep aid items to isolate yourself from noisy, bright surroundings, and induce sleep.
If you arrive at your destination during the daytime
If you cannot follow my first advice and arrive in the evening, it is not all lost.
When arriving during the daytime, I know it is much easier to surrender and fall asleep the minute you enter your hotel room.
But that is going to cause more problems for you in the long run.
Instead, going out and exposing yourself to bright sunlight will help you wake up and stay alert.
You do not have to rush sightseeing, take it easy, go for a walk around your hotel, and find a place to eat a proper meal.
You will feel much better and capable of staying awake for a few extra hours.
The Bottom Line
We have to admit, traveling eastward is slightly more challenging and requires preparation and planning.
However, that should not stop us from traveling. With a bit of effort and research, it is all manageable.
And after your first jet lag experience, I am pretty sure you will already know what to do next time to improve some things.
Jet lag comes in a few common symptoms, but we all go through them differently, and they do not all hit us equally hard.
So eventually you will develop your custom strategy for fighting jet lag, regardless of where you are traveling.
And in the meantime, keep planning for your next travel adventure.