How to: ... beat jet lag


Say goodbye to groggy. You need to be performing at your best when you arrive, so what are the best ways to beat 'bio-rhythmic confusion'? 

  1. Look after yourself before you leave. Top up your sleep and make sure you're well rested, well organised and calm before you travel. If you’re flying overnight and you can sleep on the flight, it will help you to stay up later at your destination. So pack things in your hand luggage that will make you more comfortable on the plane – a neck pillow, eye mask, ear plugs, soothing music to play on your MP3 player.

  2. Plan as if you’re leaving two days earlier than you are. Start getting up and going to bed earlier (if you're travelling east) or later (if you're travelling west). Pack well ahead and keep the last 48-hours free (apart from your normal work schedule), even if it means being hectic before your false departure date 2 days before. You'll have two orderly, peaceful days after you’ve packed so that you are physically and mentally ready to fly. It will give you time to visualise yourself on the trip and if you've forgotten something, there's time to remember it.

  3. Use the flight to rest and reset.Change the time on your watch to the new time as soon as you are on the plane. During the flight, try to eat and sleep according to your destination's local time. Only if you are on a very short trip does it make sense to keep close to your home time-zone.

  4. If there is time, have a stopover en route. Building a stopover into the trip will make it easier to adjust to the time change, and you'll be less tired when you arrive. Take advantage of airport connection time to have a refreshing shower in the terminal, if possible.

  5. On arrival, stay awake until bedtime. Force your body into the local time by refusing to allow yourself sleep. If you're getting drowsy, take a good walk until early evening to take in fresh air, daylight and have exercise. Even if you flew all night, had very little sleep on the flight and arrived exhausted. If you must nap, set an alarm and only allow yourself a short sleep – perhaps 20 mins. After that get up and start moving, take yourself into the sunlight or go for a swim.

  6. To help you sleep at the 'wrong' time, stay with your usual bed-time rituals as far as possible. Take a warm shower and drink a hot soothing (ideally caffeine free) drink before bed. Make sure the hotel room is at a comfortable temperature before you get under the covers. Take your usual book or reading material with you to help you relax and feel at home. Ban electronics while are you are in bed; phones, iPads, TV. Make the room as dark as possible – roll up a spare blanket to hide the light from the landing under the hotel room door, and take clothes pegs with you to clip together the edges of the curtains to banish any chink of city streetlight from outside.

  7. Master daylight and darkness. The cycle of light and dark is one of the most important factors in setting the body’s internal clock. Exposure to daylight at the destination will usually help you adapt to the new time zone faster. British Airways Jet Lag calculator is a fantastically specific way to work out what time to expose yourself to light and when to avoid light in the first two days of your trip to help your body adjust.

Businessman waiting in airport

The GP's Tips:

  • Dehydration can intensify the effects of jet lag, especially after sitting in a dry plane cabin for many hours. Drink water as much and as often as you can. Avoid alcoholic and caffeine drinks (coffee, tea and cola) while travelling, which can disturb sleep.

  • Travellers who take medication according to a strict timetable (such insulin) should seek medical advice from a health professional before their journey. 

  • Sleep-aid medicine should only be used as a last resort and ideally prescribed by a doctor before you leave, with careful advice about dosage and timing. Taking medication, including Melatonin supplements (available in the US) is not recommended as it doesn't help your body to adjust naturally to a new sleeping pattern, and can become addictive. 

  • Bottom Line: The best prescription is to leave home unfrazzled, minimize jet lag’s symptoms, force yourself into the new time as soon as possible. 

Another in our 'How to make a difference' series.