As it turns out, a cup of coffee isn't always the answer.

By Emily Shwake
September 19, 2019
Hero Images / Getty

Just as there's nothing more exciting than a big trip, there's nothing more exhausting than actually getting there. What is commonly referred to as "jet lag" is our body's reaction to the disruption of our circadian rhythm. "When we cross time zones very quickly, the body clock is no longer aligned to the time in the environment and almost every process in our body is affected by this," explains Dr. Yu Sun Bin, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre.

Based on her review of the research on non-pharmacological treatment options for jet lag, she says that the best thing travelers can do is simply follow standard health advice: Eating well, exercising, and reducing the amount of alcohol you drink can go a long way in helping you get the rest you need. She did, however, offer some more additional advice that might prevent jet lag from putting a damper on your trip.

Related: 10 Jetsetter-Approved Essentials for Long-Haul Flights

Prepare for the flight smartly.

Circadian rhythm aside, we can't ignore the fact that flying can make it really hard to sleep no matter what time it is. "In the focus on jet lag, I think we researchers often forget about travel fatigue or the general weariness from traveling, rather than the body clock having to adapt to new time zones," says Bin. Make sure to adjust your watch to the destination's time zone, and get as comfortable as possible when it's time to sleep: stay clean and hydrated, use noise-cancelling headphones and eye masks to block out the environment, pack healthy snacks, and, of course, don't forget your neck pillow.

When you arrive, go outside during the day.

The body clock functions based on the sun. Therefore, the best thing you can do to overcome jet lag is to step into the outdoors as much as possible during the day, and remove artificial lighting—especially blue light from electronic screens—at night. Those are tricky rules to follow while you're still operating on your normal time zone, but Bin says that powering through the day is essential to synchronizing your body clock. A short nap can reduce fatigue, but sleeping for more than an hour during the day will make it impossible to adjust to the new time zone.

Readjust your eating schedule.

The body clock not only determines when we go to sleep, but it also affects metabolism and digestion. "A common symptom of jet lag is feeling extremely hungry at unusual times," says Bin. Just as you get used to going to sleep at certain times, your body learns to anticipate when food is coming based on when you typically have your meals. Make sure you're packing a healthy meal loaded with fruits and vegetables, and avoiding hyper-processed foods as much as possible. Eat your carb-heavy meal in the evening around four hours before bed as it will make you drowsy and may make it easier to fall asleep. For the same reason, you'll want to eat less carbs during the day to prevent feeling even more fatigued.

Related: Ways to Take a Healthier Flight

Drink coffee in moderation.

Just like when we're trying to get through the midday slump at home, grabbing a cup of coffee can help you stay awake and alert when jet lag is dragging you down. Remember that caffeine can stay in your system for four to eight hours so factor that in when deciding if you need your afternoon cup of joe. "If you are sensitive, it is probably best to avoid caffeine after midday to promote sleep," says Bin. In addition to declining the after-dinner espresso, avid coffee drinkers should follow the standard rule not to have more than four cups of coffee a day.

Reduce your alcohol intake.

Alcohol might help you fall asleep, but it will also prevent you from getting the quality sleep you need. As the old adage goes, quality is better than quantity when it comes to sleep, and it is especially true when you're trying to recover from jet lag. Bin adds that you should avoid drinking alcohol during the morning of your origin. "The way the body metabolizes alcohol is different depending on what time it is, according to our body clock," says Bin. With that being said, it's probably best to avoid the cocktail menu on your next international flight.

Use melatonin with caution.

This natural herbal supplement can be helpful for easing jet lag, but Bin warns that it might not be safe for everyone. "In Australia, melatonin is only available by prescription and that is because we don't know if it is safe to be used in pregnancy, for people with health conditions, and in children," she says. If you can make it work with your schedule, adjusting to the time zone in the days before your departure can prevent jet lag from having too much of an impact while you're traveling. In the evenings leading up to your trip, take one to three milligrams two hours before the time that you want to fall asleep in the time zone you're traveling to. Continue this regimen while you're on the trip and you should have a much easier time getting the shuteye you need.

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