Jet lag is one of the most frustrating parts of travel. No one wants to spend his or her holiday wired at night and yawning through days, but until science figures out a way to manually reset our internal clocks, there’s not much we can do to prevent it. Jet lag occurs when your circadian rhythm — also know as your internal clock — is thrown off by traveling across time zones. Your circadian rhythm helps your body understand what time of day it is and helps regulate your eating and sleeping patterns, body temperature, blood pressure, metabolism and many other things. When the time of day you’re experiencing doesn’t jive with your internal clock, your system gets confused. Since your circadian rhythm also helps regulate other systems, jet lag can affect more than your sleep cycle. Many suffer from stomach and digestive issues since they’re not ready to process food at the traditional meal times in a new location, and jet lag may also affect your cognitive functions, causing moodiness or making it difficult to concentrate. Here’s a salient point: “Jet lag doesn’t get better the more you travel,” seasoned travel journalist and Fodors contributor Lawrence Ferber shares. “It’s not like practicing a language.” That said, there are things you can do to help speed up the process.
Find Bright Lights (Or Stay Away from Them)
Your circadian rhythm is largely regulated by exposure to light — your eyes relay this information to a part of your brain called the hypothalamus, which uses it to help set your internal clock. Therefore, being outside when it’s bright out, even if you’re feeling like it should be the middle of the night, can help reset that clock to local time.
Try going for a run or brisk walk first thing in the morning. In addition to getting some sunlight, exercise can also help combat jet lag symptoms. It’s one of the things that works for Vox journalist Annemarie Dooling.
“At home, I go for a short run six days a week early in the morning, so I try to do that when I travel as well,” she says. “It’s sort of like a signal to my body that it’s morning.”
Try to Alter Your Internal Clock Prior to the Trip
Some people find that slowly changing their sleep schedule at home before a trip is helpful. “If I’m dealing with a very small time zone shift, like three hours, I will try and live on the upcoming time zone’s schedule a bit in advance if at all possible,” says Ferber. “When changing time zones radically, USA to Europe or Asia, a two-hour nap at some point during the day, after lunch or before dinner ideally, is helpful.”
For west-to-east travel, try advancing your internal clock by going to bed and waking about an hour earlier than you usually would — it’s just like “springing ahead” for daylight savings. If you’re going east-to-west, do the opposite: Try to get to sleep and wake later than normal.
It’s worth noting that for short trips or when traveling just one or two time zones away, it might be better to just stay on your home time. You might leave the party early, but flip-flopping within the same week can be really tough on your system.
Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle, is a popular anti-jet-lag tool. During a normal day, your internal clock naturally releases melatonin in the evening, which helps signal, “Hey, it’s time for bed.” Melatonin supplements, most often in the form of a pill, can do the same.
Melatonin is most beneficial when you’ve traveled five or more time zones, though it can also be useful when traveling closer to home. If you’ve just traveled east, take the supplement in the early evening to let your body know it’s later than it thinks. If you’ve traveled west, wait until after dark.
Just Do What Works for You
Author Jo Piazza typically flies about eight times a month, at least one of which is a long-haul trip to the other side of the world. To keep herself healthy and sharp, she’s developed her own routine.
“For the most part, I stay away from both alcohol and caffeine on the road or at least for the day before and after a flight,” she says, adding that she also starts the first travel day with a fresh green juice. “I try to work out for at least 30 minutes right after I land, or at least before I go to sleep that night, preferably outside.”
Annemarie has her techniques, too. “I don’t force myself to sleep if I can’t get to bed, but I do activities that make me sleepy,” she says. “For me, personally, that’s usually repetitive activities like reading a book I’ve already read but love, or playing a repetitive iPhone game. You’d be surprised how drowsy a banal activity can make you.”
The general rule of thumb is that it takes a day to recover from each time zone skipped, so be sure to give yourself a break and ease into your new time zone. Give yourself time to adjust and respect your body. You’ll enjoy yourself much more and feel much better after.