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The symptoms of exhaustion and nausea are caused by crossing different time zones, which messes with our circadian rhythm – the natural 24-hour body clock based on sunrise and sunset.
While our brain is able to adjust slowly to changes, for example during daylight savings time, suddenly jumping forward or backwards several hours has a bigger impact.
Everyone has their own method for fighting jet lag. From old wives’ tales to innovative apps, plus some royal advice from Her Maj, the following cures are rooted in science. Next time you fly, they might just make changing time zones bearable.
The techy treatment: TimeShifter
‘Jet lag is history.’ That’s the tagline for this app co-invented by neuroscientist Dr. Steven Lockley. TimeShifter uses NASA-approved science to help combat jet lag. Its algorithm has helped astronauts, athletes and top CEOs. Now, it’s available on your smartphone.
“Generic advice is over simplistic and can often be counterproductive, making jet lag worse,” explains Lockley. Instead, TimeShifter writes individual jet lag plans based on every trip. The app uses personal data such as age, gender, sleep pattern and whether you’re an early bird or night owl, to generate each plan.
The plan then tells you when to avoid light, when to seek it out and (if you like) when to drink coffee or pop melatonin pills. It sends notifications throughout the day to remind you when to take action, and it works offline so it can keep you updated in-flight. Business travellers will appreciate the Quick Turnaround™ feature, designed for people who don’t need to fully adjust to the local timezone but do need to stay awake for 4pm meetings.
The regal remedy: suck a sweetie
Queen Elizabeth II is the most widely travelled monarch in history, so it’s no surprise that she’s got a trick or two up her sleeve for fighting jet lag. What is surprising is how low-tech and easily affordable it is. As well as using homeopathic remedies, she also swears by barley sugar. Yep, the hard-boiled sweets you can buy for £1 from your local corner shop.
Even more remarkably, her approach is backed up by science. When Her Maj sucks a boiled sweet, she’s using her metabolic sugar pathways to bring her body clock in line with her destination. Beating jet lag is all about subconscious routines, and we’re used to eating at certain times. You could get the same effect by tucking into a meal, but if you’re not hungry, a high-sugar sweet is the perfect solution.
The sunny solution: step into the light
Light, and its absence, is the biggest trigger for our body clock. That’s why flying east to west feels easier: the day gets longer. Exposing yourself to the sun is the fastest way to re-calibrate your brain to your new timezone, so when you’re booking your flight look for one that lands in the morning or afternoon.
Getting that sunshine doesn’t just mean slapping on factor 30 and hitting the beach. If you’re on a city break, go for a stroll around your new neighbourhood, and stop for a coffee or early dinner, al fresco.
Even if it’s a cloudy day, you’ll get more benefit from the sunlight than you would from indoor artificial light. When you leave the airport, don’t rush to grab a taxi or train. Take a few minutes to gaze up at the sky. Not straight at the sun, obviously.
The adrenaline-pumping antidote: exercise
A workout might be at the bottom of your to-do list after landing, but consider bumping it up. Jet lag causes fatigue, anxiety and poor circulation which can all be helped with some light cardio. Exercise also blocks the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone). A brisk walk, jog or swim should give you the energy to last until bed time.
“Exercise helps regulate the body’s temperature, which is another way for our circadian rhythms to re-adjust,” says Papillon Luck, founder of jet lag supplement company 15th Degree. “A great travel hack is to add in a cold shower post exercise, to regulate your core temperature.” Yikes.
Last year Delta Air Lines and luxury Los Angeles gym chain, Equinox, launched a #Sweatlag class with exercises specifically designed to combat the effects of lag. But if you’re not flying to LA you can get the same effect by taking a jog around a nearby park for some fresh air and sunlight, followed by some light weights in your hotel gym, if you’re feeling wild.
The foodie fix: tuck into high-tryptophan dishes
Choosing your snacks and meals carefully can also help to set your body clock on the right track. The amino acid tryptophan is key to creating seratonin (the happy hormone) which your body turns into melatonin.
Turkey is famously high in tryptophan, one reason we all enjoy a good nap after Christmas dinner. But it’s not the only one.
Hands up if you’ve ever experienced a carb coma? We all have, and that’s because carbohydrates are also high in tryptophan, so jet lag is the perfect excuse to indulge in a big bowl of ramen, carbonara or poutine. Other foods to look out for are red meat, eggs, soft cheese and chicken, as well as vegan-friendly pulses and tofu.
Dietician Ryan Maciel, R.D.N. recommends stepping back into childhood with a glass of milk before bedtime. “The calcium in milk acts as a sleep aid by helping to convert the amino acid tryptophan into melatonin,” he soothes.
While you can’t avoid jet lag completely, it is possible to trick your body into switching up its patterns by trying to stick as close to your natural routine as possible. Fresh air, sunlight and exercise are the natural enemies of jet lag, and food plays a role too (so tuck in).