What really works for jet lag?

21:32, Nov 21 2013

Here's what I know for sure about jet lag: it happens when it happens and there's not a lot you can do about it.

I can do several trips without experiencing any jet lag at all and then wham, I feel like I'm walking through treacle.

I'm lying awake in the middle of the night, watching the numbers tick over on the clock radio, feeling as though sleep will never come.

There are so many theories about preventing jet lag, from choosing red eye flights (um, no thanks) to eating dried cherries, but I wonder how much difference most of them make.

The only thing I have found that usually works is immediately adopting the time zone of your destination, staying awake during daylight hours no matter how much it hurts.

If you battle through the day and go to bed really tired, it helps you switch to the time zone of where you are (and that's the only time zone you should be thinking about, forget about what time it is at home).


Daylight and exercise help re-set the body clock, but I think there's a fair bit of luck involved as well.

A Skyscanner survey has identified some of the jet lag "cures" travellers have tried, ranging from staying awake for the whole flight to taking Viagra.

I was amused to see that more travelelrs have tried drinking alcohol than avoiding it, but neither method rated very highly on the success scale.

The most effective "cure", according to the 500 travellers surveyed, is stretching or doing light exercise during the flight.

About half of those surveyed believed this had helped, while about a third said eating a light and healthy diet had worked.

About a quarter had tried using sleeping tablets, with moderate success, while small numbers had tried herbal remedies, melatonin tablets, anti-jet lag pills or Viagra... which was possibly not for jet lag at all.

In a bid to separate the myths from the science, I sought advice from the National Sleep Foundation in the US, which says jet lag is essentially an imbalance in the body's natural clock, which is disturbed by travelling to different time zones.

Once thought to be merely a state of mind, jet lag is now a well-researched ailment best managed through behavioural adjustments.

The foundation is lukewarm on the benefits of sleeping pills and other drugs.

It says sleeping pills can help but only with the short-term effects of insomnia, not the underlying biological imbalance.

Melatonin, which has been a popular theory for jet lag over recent years, gets little backing from the sleep experts, who say it is an "experimental approach".

Melatonin is a naturally-secreted human hormone that affects the body's circadian rhythms and some travellers swear by taking it an hour or two before they want to go to sleep.

However, the National Sleep Foundation suggests this might be a waste of time.

"There is some evidence that when administered during the day, melatonin increases the tendency to sleep, but at night, the amount of sleep is unaffected," it says.

The Foundation instead recommends behavioural adjustments such as choosing a flight that arrives in the early evening and staying up to 10pm local time.

If you really have to sleep during the day, it should be for a maximum of two hours, but you're better off getting as much sunlight as you can.

If you're keen to try adjusting your schedule to maximise your sleep, British Airways has a nifty jet lag calculator where you can enter the different time zones and get advice on when to get out in the sunshine and when to hit the hay.

The National Sleep Foundation says contrary to popular belief, the types of food we eat have no effect on jet lag, although we should avoid tucking into a heavy meal or emptying the mini bar of chocolate before bed.

Caffeine and alcohol should also be avoided for at least three hours before bed time.

It is important to think about your sleeping environment, with noise and temperature big factors in sleep quality.

The Foundation says two common travel-related stress conditions are the "First Night Effect" and the "On Call Effect".

Many travellers suffer when trying to get to sleep in an unfamiliar environment, while others are kept awake by a nagging worry that a phone call or noise in the hallway will wake them up.

Bringing something comfortable from home can help with the former, while ear plugs, eye masks and diverting calls to a voicemail service can help with the latter.