Jet Lag: What it Is, Why It Happens, & How to Beat It

by Kaeli Bauman
Jet lag: the inevitable travel side effect of pretty much any international trip. 

It impacts us all differently and it’s no doubt an annoyance -- especially if life is busy and you’ve managed to squeeze away from work for one whole week in Paris. 

You want to enjoy your entire week (so you should!) and are unwilling to give up a day or two to jet lag. Even if you’re a seasoned traveler and jet lag is no stranger to you, it’s smart to protect your body against it.

This guide will cover 8 ways to beat jet lag (or at least drastically minimize it) so that you can search for the best wine and tapas in town rather than taking a nap when you land. 

Table of Contents

What is Jet Lag?

Before we can dive into how to beat jet lag, we have to understand what exactly jet lag is. 

Jet lag is a sleep disorder experienced by those who travel across time zones. The body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) stays in one time zone while we physically travel to another, which means the body and circadian rhythm are out of sync, and the brain is trying to play catch up.

Basically, jet lag is the closest experience that modern-day humans have to time travel.

What Causes Jet Lag?

Jet lag is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the ability to cross several timezones on the same day via air travel, the way humans traveled reduced the effects of jet lag. 

It takes a full week to travel by boat from the US to Europe. When you travel by boat, which was historically our travel method of choice, crossing those timezones takes several days. Days that you’d have to adjust, for your brain to slowly shift into a circadian rhythm that is more appropriate for your physical location. 

Now that we have the world at our fingertips via air travel, we can leave New York and arrive in Japan in the same calendar day. But Japan is 14 hours ahead of New York, so you could leave on your flight early in the morning and arrive at your destination… early in the morning.

This plus the many health effects that happen to your body when you fly contribute to jet lag and it’s crucial to understand this when looking at the causes of the sleep disorder. 

#1. Hormonal Imbalance

Your brain secretes hormones like melatonin, growth hormone, and prolactin when it’s nearing the time you’d normally go to sleep, according to your circadian rhythm[*]. 

Jet lag is essentially caused by your brain secreting these essential sleep and wakefulness hormones during time periods it’s used to doing so, rather than the time periods during which you’d expect it to in a new timezone. 

Besides the main factor which we learned of above (the effect on your circadian rhythm and your brain not playing catch up) there are a few other factors that contribute to jet lag and can make it worse. 

#2. Dehydration 

It’s no secret that the air in the plane’s cabin is incredibly dry. 

This is mostly due to the high altitude and lack of humidity in the plane’s filtration system. 

People also love to drink alcohol or coffee (or both) when flying. Combine the dry air with these drinks and you will definitely feel dehydrated; you may experience dry skin and eyes, headaches, fatigue, and dizziness.

Read More: Does Flying Dehydrate You? Your Guide to Air Travel Hydration

#3. Elevation and Cabin Pressure

Again, flying is really unnatural for the body and it has to adjust fairly quickly to going from the ground (or sea level) to being at 36,000 feet in the air. 

Of course, this is why cabins are pressurized - to minimize the effects of being at such a high elevation - but cabin pressure sits around 6,000 and 8,000 feet, so it’s closer to how you’d feel in the Rocky Mountains or Machu Picchu.

At high elevations, there is less oxygen because the air is thinner, so you could experience altitude sickness symptoms like swelling and earaches. Bloating is also experienced due to the air pressure causing gas to expand in your stomach and intestines (ouch). 

#3. Stress

Travel can be stressful - long waits in the security line, flight delays, rushing to make tight connections and dealing with the overstimulation of being around thousands of people at once.

Stress affects all areas of our life, so it only makes sense that it can exasperate jet lag.

#4. A Suppressed Immune System

We don’t need to dig into all the nasty, microscopic reasons why a plane is a breeding ground for germs - you get it.

Just like how stress can contribute to jet lag, a suppressed immune system will also make you feel the effects of jet lag more dramatically. 

Unfortunately, jet lag will increase your chances of getting sick as well, because your body undergoes many of the reparative processes to protect you against illness when you sleep. 

8 Ways to Beat Jet Lag

Now that we understand what is jet lag and what causes it, let’s get into solution mode. 

#1. Hydrate & Avoid Caffeine 

If there is one thing you can do for your body while flying - hydrate. It’s simple, and it’s free. Reaching for coffee or a glass of wine may be our first instinct, but it’s not the best thing to do for our bodies. 

So grab your refillable Hydro Flask and head to the closest water fountain before you board. 

That cocktail, wine, or beer can wait until you land. Plus, think about how much better that drink will taste when you are feeling great and don’t want to faceplant into it. 

#2. Get Moving

If you are the kind of person who picks a window seat and tries to not move at all until you land, may I kindly suggest to switch that up? Moving around the cabin, even if it’s just a quick bathroom break, is a great way to keep your blood flowing and get oxygen to your brain so you can fight fatigue and swelling. 

It can also reduce your risk of cardiovascular-related health concerns that come with sitting for too long on flights, such as dangerous blood clots known as deep vein thrombosis. 

On the other hand, getting up too frequently can be annoying to other passengers, so you can always move at your seat as well. There are many seat stretches that you can do, and some airlines even offer these as part of their inflight entertainment.

Some high-performers and frequent fliers, like Tim Ferriss, swear by vigorous exercise within a few hours of landing.

#3. Eat Healthfully

This is actually a big factor in how you will feel during and after your flight -- choosing healthy, nutrient-dense foods can make a huge difference. 

Sorry to be a buzzkill, but if you’re fueling up on Shake Shack before your flight, you’re not doing your body any favors. 

Everyone is different, but we recommend to avoid sugar, refined foods, and dairy while flying as these are common inflammatory foods and will make jet lag worse.

#4. Boost Your Micronutrients

Your body is exposed to many health impacts when you fly. Jet lag and disruption to your circadian rhythm is just one of them, but the other five effects of air travel to your body exacerbate jet lag.

Your body needs extra nutritional support to balance these impacts as they contribute to the hormonal imbalances that result in jet lag. 

We created our flagship product called Flight Elixir as an all-in-one health drink mix to support your body while flying - it supports travel health 6 ways using all-natural, whole-food ingredients.

Other vitamins to consider taking are probiotics to support gut health, and magnesium to feel calm and relaxed.

#5. Fasting

The idea behind fasting as a remedy for jet lag is that it can help reset the internal clock by “starving” jet lag. 

Because your body’s hormone production cycle is to “blame” for jet lag, and hormones are produced around a few events in your day (when it’s time for sleep and to wake, when you experience stressors, and of course, when you eat), fasting allows for you to hit the “reset” button on your hunger and feeding hormonal patterns. 

It’s suggested that you refrain from eating or drinking anything other than water or herbal tea for roughly 16 hours before your plane lands. Then, once you’re in your new time zone, aim to eat your first big meal as close as possible to 7:30 a.m. if your flight lands in the morning and 6:00 pm if your flight lands in the evening. 

#6. Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy has been used as a healing tool for centuries to treat everything from headaches to stress. It’s no surprise that there as certain essential oils which can support your well-being while flying and mitigate jet lag’s effects. 

Seek out blends that use a calming oil like lavender to promote relaxation, peppermint or citrus to energize, and wood scents like pine for grounding. 

#7. Understand Your Circadian Rhythm

If you don’t understand your own circadian rhythm, it’ll be difficult to understand how to reduce the impacts of jet lag on your body. 

Timeshifter is an app that can help. Rooted in the latest sleep and circadian neuroscience, it allows you to create your own personalized jet lag plans. 

Based on your individual factors, it’ll tell you when to sleep, when to expose yourself to bright light, and when to avoid caffeine. 

#8. Strategically Timed Flights 

Overnight night flights can be tough on the circadian rhythm in and of themselves. Sleeping on a plane isn’t easy, and even if you’re one of those unicorns who can sleep on a plane, your sleep isn’t going to be as deep or restorative. 

Even so, you may be able to time your flight so that you reduce the impacts of jet lag by shifting your schedule by a few hours.

Kaeli Bauman
Kaeli Bauman

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