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Coming home to the U.S. from Asia or Australia can be a real struggle for many folks. After coming home from my first trip to Japan many years ago, I remember tossing and turning for HOURS in the middle of the night followed by wanting to crawl into bed at 2 pm while I was work. Neither was ideal and this went on for more than a week.
Since then, I have learned a thing or two when it comes to beating jet lag when traveling internationally. In this post, I’ll share 16 of my best tips to help you avoid and beat jet lag when you get home from Asia or any far-flung destination. Specifically, I use the following techniques to manage the quality of my sleep before the trip, during the flight and after I land after crossing over 10+ time zones. They have helped me stay alert and productive immediately in the days after.
Let’s get into it!
What is Jet Lag?
Medically, jet lag is known as desynchronosis which is a result of disruptions to your body’s natural circadian rhythms. This disruption is caused by traveling at high speeds over great distances in an easterly or westerly direction.
Essentially, jet lag happens when our internal clock is disrupted and is no longer synchronized with the local time, as a result of this travel.
Common symptoms include a disruption to sleep patterns such as wanting to sleep during the day and staying awake in the middle of the night, headaches, fatigue and irritability.
Time Difference between North America and the Asia Pacific
When traveling across three time zones or fewer, jet lag is usually a minimal concern.
Looking at a small sample of city-pairs, travelers easily cross as many as 11 to 17 time zones when traveling internationally between North America and far-flung destinations such as Asia and Australia. The effects of jet lag, as you can imagine, can be quite pronounced.
New York and Bangkok → 11-hour difference
Los Angeles to Tokyo → 16-hour difference
Chicago to Sydney → 15-hour difference
Vancouver to Brisbane → 17-hour difference
Does the Travel Direction Affect the Severity of Jet Lag?
Yes, absolutely. The effects of jet lag are more pronounced when traveling eastward (losing time) versus traveling westward (gaining time). Most international travelers will notice that the effects of jet lag are more pronounced when they travel from Asia Pacific to the U.S. or Canada versus the opposite direction. Nonetheless, all of the advice provided below are still relevant no matter the direction.
Traveling between north and south, even on long flights, generally does not trigger jet lag.
Most international travelers will notice that the effects of jet lag are more pronounced when they travel from Asia Pacific to the U.S. or Canada versus the opposite direction.
How Many Days does Jet Lag Last?
At worst, it may take a day per time zone crossed to recover from the effects of jet lag. However, it is more common to experience a shorter recovery time frame. Traveling westerly may require half of the time zones in days for recovery. Traveling easterly may take 2/3 of the time zones in days for recovery.
For example, it may take well over a week to recover after flying from Tokyo to Los Angeles, traveling across 16 time zones.
16 Tips on How to Beat Jet Lag When You Get Home from Asia
When it comes to beating jet lag from international travel, the main objective is to restore your regular sleep patterns, matching the local time, as quickly as possible. There are a few things that you can do before you leave on your trip, during the flight and after you have arrived. The tips apply below no matter if you’re heading back to North America or to Asia.
What To Do Before Your Trip
1. Adjust Your Sleep Times
When traveling across many time zones, it is unrealistic to completely switch over to the local destination before you leave. However, it would be wise to prepare your body by gradually adjusting your sleep times in the few days before the trip. When traveling eastward (from Asia and Australia to North America), adjust your internal clock by waking up and going to bed EARLIER. When traveling westward (from North America to Asia and Australia), do the opposite by waking up and going to bed LATER. An easy way is by gradually shifting your wake up and bedtimes by half an hour or one hour each day.
2. Create a Sleep Plan
An online jet lag calculator can help you reset your sleep schedules during your travels so that you may adjust to the local time of your destination as quickly as possible.
3. Choose the Best Seats on the Plane
If money is no object, a business or first class seat that turns into a flat bed with comfortable bedding would be ideal as it allows you to sleep in a natural position for optimal rest.
Otherwise, opt for a Premium Economy seat or exit row seating in the Economy cabin, both of which offer extra legroom and/or more recline, not only for more comfort but more room to stretch out, just as you would on a bed. The idea is to create a more comfortable, restful environment so that you could sleep better and longer on the flight.
If you are seated in the Economy cabin, choose a window seat as you are less likely to be disturbed. In fact, you would be the one doing the disturbing rather than the other way round.
Avoid being seated close to the galley or lavatories as these are high traffic zones, with more noise and more light spilling over, which may disrupt your sleep.
If an air valve is available, open it to keep your environment cool to help you fall asleep faster.
A handy website I often use is Seatguru where you could input your flight number to find out which seats should be avoided. Check Seatguru right before you select your seat during the online check-in or during the ticket purchase, if available.
4. Choose An Ideal Arrival Time
Ideally, plan to arrive at your destination for early evening or late afternoon, which will allow you to ease your transition into the local time. After getting home (or your hotel), focus on getting a good meal and a good night’s sleep.
5. Choose Comfortable Clothing
Wear breathable, stretchy clothing that prevents you from feeling too cold or too warm while having enough room to move in. I find that Icebeaker merino wool clothing is an excellent choice for travel as it helps you regulate temperature and is easy to maintain. Avoid skin-tight clothing as it restricts movement and is generally uncomfortable for sleeping in confined spaces.
6. Create a Sleep Amenity Kit for Your Carry-On
Assemble your own handy amenity kit to help you sleep more comfortably with minimal light and sound distractions. It is particularly helpful when you have little control over the environment. There is nothing like the glare of a neighbor’s reading light or the screams of a crying toddler, when all you want is a few hours of peaceful rest.
Some people, who have difficulty falling sleeping on planes, opt for the use of sleeping pills, especially for red-eye flights. In this case, it is important to consider the length and timing of the flight. Anything less than 8 hours of flight time would likely mean you would be under the influence of the medication when you get to your destination, which would not be ideal. It would be a good idea to consult a doctor if sleep medication is right for you, based on your situation and needs.
What to Do During Your Flight
7. Adjust to Local Time on the Flight
As soon as you step on the plane, set your watch and devices to the local time of your destination and observe the meal and sleep times at your destination as closely as possible. When traveling east to North America, try to stay awake until bedtime. (If you are heading to Asia, try to wake up at the local time.)
In order to observe the proper sleep times, you may opt to avoid the regular in-flight meals as they are scheduled based on the point of departure. Bring snacks that you enjoy or ask for snacks and leftover meals when it is the appropriate time to eat. For travelers traveling in Business and First Class, many airlines now offer you the option to choose your meal times.
8. Avoid Screen Time Before Bed Time
During your flight, avoid screen time at least one hour before you intend to sleep. That includes tablets, cell phones, laptops and the IFE (in-flight entertainment system). The blue light emitted by electronic devices can be quite stimulating and prevents you from falling asleep and affects the quality of your sleep.
9. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine Consumption
For some people, this would not be popular advice but it is best to avoid alcohol and caffeine before the flight, during the flight and the day after the flight.
Both can easily disrupt your sleep and therefore affect the quality of your rest while onboard and affect your ability to adjust to the local time. Alcohol can also dehydrate you, especially at high altitude.
When it comes to beating jet lag from international travel, the main objective is to restore your regular sleep patterns, matching the local time, as quickly as possible.
10. Drink More Water
While onboard, drink more water than you normally would. It is easy to get dehydrated as the air in the cabin is quite dry. Ask for a bottle of water to keep by your seat for easy access throughout the flight. No need to fumble toward the galley in the pitch dark. Better yet, carry your own reusable water bottle that you can easily refill at airports after passing security.
What to Do After You Arrive at Your Destination
11. Adjust to Local Time After Landing
As soon as you arrive, do as the locals do. This means observing the meal and sleep times. Hopefully, you would have gotten some sleep on the plane, meaning you have a few hours in you to stay awake. Resist the urge to take a nap/sleep during the day until it is actually bedtime (say, around 10 pm). This will help you adjust your internal circadian rhythms to the local time much faster.
12. Get Plenty of Sun
Sunlight is the most powerful trigger for realigning your circadian rhythms with the local time. During the day, be sure to spend some time outdoors and get some sun exposure. If you are traveling during winter time where there isn’t much sunlight, a portable light therapy energy lamp may be helpful.
13. Keep Caffeine Usage During the Day
Consume caffeine only during the early hours of the day so that it would not disrupt your sleep at night.
14. Resist the Urge to Nap
Even if you feel like it, fight the urge to take a nap during the day, as it may affect the quality and length of sleep at night. It helps to stay active during the day to trigger a need for rest in the evening. Sleeping well through the night is as important as staying up during the day.
15. Prepare Your Room for Restful Sleep
Just as exposure to light and sunlight can be a powerful stimulus to aligning your internal clock, the absence of light when it is time to sleep can do the same. Limit your exposure to screen time at least one hour before bedtime and if possible, sleep in a room with dark, blackout curtains or use a sleep mask to keep light out.
16. Taking Melatonin
If needed, some travelers use melatonin to promote sleep at the desired sleep time. It is a hormone that is naturally produced by the body in dim light or in the absence of light to help the body prepare for sleep. It is commonly available over-the-counter in many countries or online here.
So there you go! Here are my 16 tips on how to best avoid and beat jet lag from international travels. What are your strategies?