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Try these new tricks for fighting jet lag

Jet lag can cost travelers the first day of their vacation.
Jet lag can cost travelers the first day of their vacation. (iStock)
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Cramped seats, mask requirements and surly service aren’t the worst part of international airline travel. No, it’s that awful feeling when they turn on the cabin lights in the middle of the night and try to serve you breakfast before landing. Fortunately, there are some new tricks for fighting jet lag.

Jet lag is a sleep disorder that affects people crossing several time zones quickly. It leaves your body’s internal clock, better known as your circadian rhythm, out of sync with the local time zone.

Christopher Lee, author of the book “Jet Lag,” says a disrupted circadian rhythm is becoming a more common problem — and not just because of air travel.

“One way of thinking about jet lag is that it is part of a broader pattern of technological innovation and time acceleration in the present,” says Lee, an associate professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

There are some new services aimed at combating jet lag, ranging from hotel programs to smartphone apps. But the best way to avoid nodding off on your first day of vacation is to take some common-sense steps beforehand.

Jet lag leaves me feeling as if I’ve gotten half a night’s sleep each night for an entire week. I once flew from New York to London and scheduled an interview for 8 a.m. the next day. About five minutes into the meeting, I dozed off. I had to reschedule the interview for the following afternoon. I returned to my room and tried, in vain, to sleep it off.

Pamela Losey used to commute across the Atlantic frequently. She says she thinks of the red-eye to London as a missed night’s sleep.

“I once nodded off very briefly during a client meeting,” says Losey, a garden designer from Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. “But when they learned that I basically flew 24 hours just to be there, they were very kind.”

Hotels are trying to help. The Hoshinoya Tokyo hotel has a deep-breathing spa regimen for people who arrive in Japan feeling a little disoriented. It also offers a three-day regimen of body-warming herb treatments and open-air baths to help you get acclimated to the 13-hour time difference between Japan and the East Coast. The hotel adjusts the humidity and brightness of your room to ease the transition, and a massage therapist shows you deep-breathing techniques to help you sleep.

In late 2019, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts began collaborating with celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak to create an anti-jet-lag exercise routine for its hotels. The series of exercises, called Jet Lag Rescue, is meant to restore guests’ circadian balance. It includes simple activities to raise your heart rate and engage your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves, as well as a restorative sequence of stretches to ease aching muscles.

Of course, there’s also an app for jet lag. It’s called Timeshifter ($24.99 a year), and it allows you to create a personalized plan to avoid jet lag based on variables such as your sleep pattern and itinerary. You can even factor melatonin supplements into your regimen. The Minnesota-based business travel agency CWT announced last year a deal to distribute Timeshifter to all of its clients, so if you work for a large company with a managed business travel program, you might already have access to Timeshifter at no extra cost.

There are new preventive measures for jet lag, too. Steven Lamm, medical director of NYU Langone Health’s Preston Robert Tisch Center for Men’s Health, says a study published in 2018 showed that supplementing with the natural antioxidant Pycnogenol (a French maritime pine bark extract) reduced the duration and severity of jet-lag symptoms.

“This research showed that supplementing with Pycnogenol actually reduced the duration of time individuals felt jet-lagged by nearly 50 percent and improved feelings of fatigue, visual impairment and inability to sleep,” Lamm says.

Tried-and-true ways of warding off jet lag include melatonin supplements (which help regulate the circadian rhythm) and prescription sleeping pills. I used melatonin on a trip to Africa a few years ago and had almost no jet lag. On a recent flight from San Francisco to Lisbon, I tried a more natural approach. I bought a bag of pistachios, which are loaded with melatonin, and ate a handful every hour. I know it sounds, well, nuts, but my jet lag was minimal. It took me about two days to adjust to the eight-hour time difference.

If you go with a sedative, be mindful of the side effects. Always consult a physician before taking pills before a flight — and, as you would on the ground, avoid combining them with alcohol.

One of the best weapons against jet lag is common sense. The bone-dry aircraft cabin can dehydrate you quickly; drink lots of water. Don’t sit in your seat for nine straight hours; get up and move around. And, for the sake of yourself and the travelers around you, stay away from alcohol. The “free” wine that’s served in business class has a cost. When I was younger, I suffered from days of disrupted sleep after having a drink too many on a transatlantic flight.

Josephine Arendt, a professor emeritus at the University of Surrey in England, has proposed a potential defense against jet lag: a wearable sensor that measures light exposure and tells the wearer when to take melatonin. Cindy Geyer, medical director at Canyon Ranch Lenox, a wellness resort in Lenox, Mass., says this approach shows some promise. In fact, aspects of Arendt’s research have already been incorporated into the Timeshifter app.

“But, as of now, there’s no current treatment yet available that can instantly shift our body’s circadian rhythm to a new time zone,” Geyer says.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.

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