Fly relaxed and arrive refreshed: tips to combat jet lag

Summertime is holiday time. Unfortunately, anyone setting off on a journey overseas runs the risk of jet lag, but you don’t just have to resign yourself to it. In the sections below, we’ll show you what you can do before, during and after your flight to ensure you can thoroughly enjoy your holiday, and ease your return to regular life afterwards.

What causes jet lag and what are its effects?

We normally live according to a 24-hour biorhythm – the circadian rhythm. We experience this as an “internal clock”, which determines when we get hungry and when we sleep. This internal clock is principally controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) – a central area of the brain that is the most important coordinator of the sleep-wake cycle.
Flying through different time zones throws this rhythm completely out of kilter, and the consequences you suffer as a result are what we call jet lag. The symptoms can be both physical and mental, taking the form of exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, digestive problems or loss of appetite, for example. Ultimately, everyone reacts differently, since factors such as age, physical condition and stress all play a role. It also depends on what direction you’re flying: travelling from west to east feels much worse than flying east to west, because you have to go to sleep when you’re actually wide awake and vice versa. Biologically, our bodies are far better suited to dealing with longer days than with cutting days short. It can take up to an entire day per time zone that you cross to feel back to normal. For example, flying from Zurich to Japan takes you through seven to nine time zones, which means you may well be suffering jet lag for an entire week.

Tips for avoiding jet lag

So what can you do to make sure that jet lag doesn’t ruin your holiday or make the already miserable business of flying back home even harder to bear, when your sleep-wake rhythm is thrown out of whack?

1. 1. Adjust your rhythm

By this we mean, ease back on your strict daily schedule a bit even before you leave. Break the rigid habits that have defined your daily life so far a little, and be flexible when it comes to mealtimes and bedtimes. For example, it can be useful to gradually go to bed a little earlier or later than usual, to approximate the time at your destination. This makes it easier to deal with the time change.

2. 2. Get enough sleep and relaxation

Getting enough sleep before setting off on a journey can have positive effects. Ideally you don’t just want to have a full night’s sleep the night before departure, but also for a few nights before that. It’s a fallacy to think that you are better able to sleep on an aeroplane if you haven’t slept much the night before – all that will do is leave you with a prolonged case of fatigue. The more rested you are when you set off, the most rested you will be when you arrive at your destination – jet lagged or not.

3. 3. Plan your arrival time

Whenever possible, choose a flight that arrives in the daytime. Daylight inhibits melatonin production, and it’s melatonin that makes us sleepy, so if you land during the day and then go and do something, it’s generally easier to stay awake. This makes it easier to get into the new rhythm and has a positive effect on your health (see Tip 8).

4. 4. Travel in stages

Even better is to work a stopover into your travel plans rather than taking a direct flight. This allows you to adapt more easily to the new time zone and the changed routine. And as a nice little bonus, the flight is often cheaper and you get the opportunity to discover an additional destination.

5. 5. Jet lag gets in through the stomach

As is so often the case, it also helps to eat healthily and avoid caffeine, alcohol and other substances (such as sleeping pills). Take some herbal tea along with you and ask the cabin crew for some hot water to brew it up. This will help you to relax and let you get to sleep more easily, if you feel you need to sleep.

6. 6. It’s WHAT time?

When you are in the aeroplane, set your watch to the time at your destination, in order to slowly adapt to the ‘new’ time. You can also try to align your mealtimes and especially your bedtimes with this as much as possible, i.e. sleep when it is night at your destination, even if the sun is shining.

7. 7. Sport on board

Stimulating your circulatory system provides a variety of physical benefits. In addition to reducing the risk of thrombosis, it can also help to keep jet lag at bay, since one of the effects of jet lag is to slow down blood flow. So every now and then, stand up, wiggle your toes, do some shallow squats, have a good long stretch … there are plenty of options to choose from. On long-haul flights it is also advisable to wear support stockings, which help the blood in your legs to circulate better. Another handy tip is to step up the amount of sport you do for a few weeks before departure. However, on the day before departure and your actual day of travel, you should do no or only a little physical activity.

8. 8. Get into your new rhythm

Upon arrival, the idea is to ease into your holidays, relax, and get into the different rhythm of the place you are visiting as quickly as possible. If you feel exhausted and have slept less than normal over the last 24 hours, you can now recharge your batteries with a quick nap. After that, however, you should get your fill of sunlight and do something physical outdoors – this will help your body with the changeover (see Tip 3).