Traveling comes with all kinds of potential health hazards, from stiff muscles to the stress of flight delays to airport junk food. Jet lag, however, is the most intense of all of them.
That’s because it’s not just about sleep deprivation—the phenomenon is caused by the disruption of your circadian rhythms. Those rhythms influence a long list of bodily functions, from sleep-wake cycles to hormone release, so when you mess with them, all kinds of symptoms can pop up. The most common are insomnia and exhaustion, but you may also experience indigestion, brain fog, and respiratory issues.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the healthier you are overall, the easier it will be to combat jet lag, so prioritizing eating well, exercising, and sleeping before a big trip is key. It’s also helpful to remember that for each time zone crossed, experts estimate it takes your body one day to correct its internal clock. Traveling east is also harder than traveling west. So think about where you’re going in advance, and plan accordingly.
What should be part of that plan? Here are five research-backed ways to reduce jet lag before, during, and after your trip.
5 Ways to Reduce Jet Lag That Really Work
1. Adjust your sleep schedule in advance
Start shifting the time you go to bed and the time you wake up a few days before your trip by one hour each night (either earlier or later depending on which direction you’re traveling). This will allow your body to start to get used to the new time zone in advance. You can even use Jet Lag Rooster to calculate exactly when the best bedtime is.
2. Adjust your light exposure
Research has shown that exposing yourself to bright light at the right time before traveling can help you start to advance or delay your circadian clock in preparation. A light box may be in order (especially if you’re a frequent traveler!) or if you live somewhere sunny, getting outside can help. If you’re flying west, in the few days before flying, it can help to sit in front of a bright light box right before bed; if you’re flying east, you should get bright light exposure early in the morning. Ideally you’d sync up this light exposure with the shift in your sleep and wake times, so that your light exposure is gradually getting later or earlier. Another study also showed exposing yourself to flashing light therapy while sleeping before your flight may prevent jet lag, but recommendations on this approach are less established. And we doubt you have access to flashing light therapy in your bedroom?
3. Take supplements
Here’s a weird supplement we bet you’ve never heard of: Pycogenol is an extract from the bark of a pine tree. Studies have shown that taking it as a supplement before, during, and after long flights can significantly reduce jet lag symptoms, maybe because it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and also enhances circulation. The one you have likely heard of is melatonin, and studies show that if you start taking it after landing at your destination (about an hour before bedtime), it can help your rhythms adjust faster, mainly by helping you get to sleep at the right time.
4. Drink coffee and stay awake
Ugh, this advice is a little harsh, but apparently it works. If you arrive at your destination during daylight hours, resist the temptation to crawl into bed, no matter how sleepy you are. Even daytime naps have been shown to anchor you to the old time zone. Good news: a meta-analysis on how jet lag affects athletes found that caffeine can help your body adjust, so feel free to use it as a little bit of a crutch as long as it’s not too late in the day and will prevent you from sleeping. Daytime light exposure will also help, so if you’re on a beach vacay, awesome. If not, take a walk.
5. Adjust your meal times
Food can also send powerful circadian cues to your body. (Is there anything it can’t do?) So just like you can adjust your sleep and wake times, adjust your meal times, too. If you’re going on a super long vacation, maybe start shifting meal times little by little towards what normal meal times will be when you arrive. If you’re flying from New York to Los Angeles and back in 48 hours, it’s probably best to stick to your normal meal times when you’re there, so that you’re prioritizing avoiding jet lag on your return. Don’t worry, everyone eats dinner super early in LA, anyway.