Page last updated at 07:17 GMT, Friday, 9 July 2010 08:17 UK

How to beat jet lag

By Mark Bailey
Mind and body coach

Jet lag is an unfortunate problem for long distance travellers. Some people seem to suffer worse than others although scientists are still unsure of exactly why. However the good news is there are some changes you can make which research has shown can alleviate its effects.

Jet lag is medically referred to as desynchronosis, and is caused by alterations to circadian rhythms.

The condition may last several days but accepted recovery rates are one day per time zone change if you are flying eastward, and one day per 1.5 time zones going west - in other words flying from Singapore to London is easier to recover from.

A yawning man
Aside from the tiredness, jet lag can also cause confusion and stress

That rhythm is controlled deep inside the animal-like part of our brain. It is governed by habit and also by our eyes sensing daylight.

When we see light, it is time to wake up and our brain tells our body to get fired up for the day through the secretion of various stress hormones.

Conversely at night our hormonal balance should change to help prepare us for sleep.

However jet lag confuses this system and we might not only feel physically tired, but mentally exhausted, even confused and stressed.

Time shifting

But there are some simple ways in which the deepest, most primitive parts of your brain and nervous system can adjust to the time shift.

For example, here is what you could do if you were going to get a flight from London to Hong Kong departing at 6pm and arriving at 1pm local time.

Three days before you fly, shift your sleep time so you go to bed and wake up an hour earlier, then two hours earlier the next day, and then the night before you fly get a really early night.

This means by the time you get on the plane, you will be tired as your body will naturally be starting to wind down and secrete hormones which allow you to sleep.

Fit into your new time zone as soon as you board the plane
Catch some sunlight to help your body clock adjust
Replace processed foods with salads and fruit
Do some exercise to relieve stress

Eat a light meal so your digestive system is not busy and drink little if any caffeine and alcohol as both disrupt sleep and rest hormones.

Adjust your watch as soon as you board so you mentally prepare for your new time zone, so if the locals would be sleeping where you are going - you should be doing the same whilst flying there.

After an hour or two make a conscious effort to go to sleep - use earplugs and an eye mask. Many people do not do this - but remember sensory cues to sound and light are what stimulate us and can often wake us up.

If you do wake up on the flight try to go back to sleep. Stay asleep until about an hour or two before landing and then drink plenty of water. Now you should feel more alive.


Have a coffee if you want, as caffeine - in limited amounts - can be helpful as it activates your central nervous system.

When you land you will be in the middle of the day so have a good lunch with plenty of fruit and vegetables as these will give you balanced sugar levels.

Exercise can help relieve the stress associated with jet lag

This way you avoid the highs and lows that come with processed snack food. Drink plenty of water and spend time in daylight. Not only is sunlight good for vitamin D levels, but it will also help you adjust more easily to your new time zone.

Now avoid the crucial mistake many people make - a mid afternoon sleep.

If you close your eyes for more than 30 minutes you will likely fall deep asleep and this will completely reverse the good measures you have taken because it confuses the deep parts of your brain that control circadian rhythm and your stress/rest hormones.

However interestingly research shows that power naps can have a highly beneficial effect generally for most people.

For example a study at Harvard found it improves cognition and tasks. This is because "switching off" with your eyes closed for 20-30 minutes helps to change the brainwave frequencies, helping our brains refresh and wind down.

It is a little like driving a car - you need to change gears sometimes or you damage the engine. So if you want, try a half-hour power nap within a few hours of landing. This could help reduce the mental confusion that can come with jet lag.

If you have time, do some light exercise. After sitting on a flight for many hours it is important for your body to move about physically - this relieves stress.

East to west

Let us think of another example flying east to west. Take the same advice into account, so adjust to your new time zone as soon as you board. Imagine you land at 9pm local time.

This means you should have been awake most of the flight and it is advisable to have drunk plenty of water whilst in the air.

It is also helpful to avoid too much sugary or processed foods before or during the flight - take some fruit with you to snack on between meals if you get hungry.

When you land avoid the temptation to have heavy meals or too much - if any - alcohol, caffeine or diet drinks - all of which tamper with your natural ability to sleep.

You might find you feel tired physically, but a bit more alert mentally. However you want to gradually allow your brain to get sleepy so you will wake up the next morning feeling alert and refreshed.

My advice is to avoid brightly lit environments and using a laptop or watching TV up close because even though you know it is only a laptop, the deep reptilian part of your brain - which is very, very simple - does not know what a laptop is.

Gear change

It just recognizes it as a bright light and thinks it must be the sun and your body starts secreting hormones that get you wired up for activity.

Spend some time listening to relaxing music - this will also make you feel more at home in a new place, meaning that you unconsciously already feel more settled.

Sleep is the result of relaxing and again, like a car, it is because of making gear changes from activity to stopping. Essential oils such as lavender seem to help people relax more easily - put them on your pillow or in a warm bath before you go to bed.

If you are hungry before bed a small amount of carbohydrate - say half a banana - 30-60 minutes before bed will help you sleep.

By taking a few simple steps and knowing how to use your body and brain properly jet lag can significantly be reduced.

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