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Most Jet Lag Cures Are Garbage -- Here's What You Actually Need to Know

Some tips are less helpful than others. | Megan Chong
Some tips are less helpful than others. | Megan Chong

There are a million jet lag stories on the internet, so let’s get this out of the way: Jet lag isn't something you can avoid. There’s no straight-up “cure” -- anyone who says otherwise is selling something, probably compression socks or a book on intermittent fasting. This is not me being a bummer, this is just the science. Take it up with the World Health Organization. Most of the jet lag "biohacks" floating around out there on the internet are mitigating at best and bogus at worst. All that said, there are certain measures you can take to help ensure your recovery process is at least no rougher than it has to be.

First things first -- what is jet lag?

If we’re gonna break down why certain hacks are better or worse than others, then we have to understand a few of jet lag’s underlying principles. Jet lag occurs when you fly across multiple time zones (you won’t notice it much if you’re crossing just one or two) and fuck up your body’s internal clock by forcing it into a new circadian rhythm -- your natural sleep/wake cycle -- faster than it’s naturally able to adjust to. When you crossed the Atlantic Ocean the old-fashioned way -- vomiting off the side of a steamship for two weeks -- your body would adjust to the new position to the sun as you went. But then humans invented commercial air travel, and with it a relatively harmless but nevertheless irritating medical condition. Symptoms mostly involve being fatigued, both physically and mentally, though you might also experience some nausea or indigestion, or find yourself pooping weird for a few days.

How long does jet lag last?

Because circadian rhythms -- your natural sleep/wake cycle -- are light-sensitive, westward travel is easier on the body than eastward travel -- the former lengthens your day, and thus your exposure to daylight. The latter collapses it. Generally, you’ll recover from jet lag on the order of about a 1:1 ratio of days spent adjusting per time zones crossed, at least if you’re flying westward. Flying east, each time zone crossed might set you back closer to a day and a half.

How can I avoid jet lag?

You can arrange your entire travel plans, destination included, around getting on one of those fancy new flights that lasts almost a full day, which will indeed allow you to skip over the whole jet lag process. There’s been some promising experimental stuff in the way of cures over the years, but nothing that’s really practical or scalable. Viagra helped mitigate the effects of jet lag in hamsters, but it would only work for eastbound flights and there haven’t been any actual human trials (though we'd quite like some more of those). Researchers at Stanford noted the potential of flashing strobe lights into your eyes while you sleep the night before your flight, but c’mon.

The only actual solution to jet lag is to just wait for it to resolve on its own, which it always will. But if you’re taking an especially short trip, or frequently fly long distances for work, you want to be sure you’re not making your sleep-hangover any worse. So, because the internet is a cesspool of questionable health and wellness advice, we will be dissecting the best-known existing tips and, to each one, posing a very important question: How garbage is it? Is it, like, a harmless, biodegradable level of garbage? Or like a plastic-six-pack-rings-that-will-eventually-strangle-a-fledgling-seabird level of garbage? Here follow the most prominent hacks, ranked (loosely) from “this is not a bad idea” all the way down to “please do not try this -- it’s garbage”.

Go out for a walk

Garbage Level: Benevolently sorting bottles into the proper recycling bins after a lovely party
This is not a bad idea. Do this as soon as you can after landing. Some folks hold that the late afternoon/dusk hours are most important if you were traveling west, but basically your goal is to soak up as much of the natural light cycle in your new timezone as possible. ‘Going for a walk’ is a bit of a catch-all -- any activity that involves fresh air, exercise, and natural light is gonna work fine. Another activity is what some folks call “earthing” or “grounding” -- a theory that walking barefoot or otherwise being in physical contact with the ground allows nature to reset your internal rhythms and hormone production. There is actually good peer-reviewed research on the beneficial effects of direct physical contact with the electrons in the surface of the Earth. Note, though, that the research didn’t specifically research jet lag, which basically leaves us with “nature is good for you,” which, duh. But hey, sitting barefoot in a park for a little while is as no-cost, low-risk as you can get, and nature is always good for you.

Sleep when the time is right

Garbage Level: Banning plastic bags
When you finally stumble off your long-haul flight -- whether or not you got any sleep -- conventional wisdom does hold that it’s best to not nap right afterward. Hold out for when it’s actually bedtime in your new time zone. Likewise, try not to marathon-sleep ’til 6pm the next day. Before your trip, though? Get in all the Zs you can: The better rested your body already is, the faster it’ll recover.

Take melatonin

Garbage Level: Banning plastic straws
Melatonin is a hormone that your body already produces on its own. When it gets dark out, a spike in the melatonin in our brains tells us it’s time to go to sleep; this is why staring at your phone or computer screen while you’re in bed can mess you up. Contrary to popular belief, a sufficient supply of melatonin does not actually make you fall asleep. It can help even out your circadian rhythms, thus helping your body enter a state where it’s better-equipped to fall asleep. Even if you’ve found it doesn’t help you get to sleep in your regular life, it’s worth giving melatonin a try for jet lag. Try somewhere between .5 and 5 milligrams somewhere between half an hour to two hours before your new bedtime (everybody is different) in your new destination. Most research advises taking it after your flight, not during or before, though John Hopkins School of Medicine says you can start taking it around your expected bedtime a few days before you even embark on your trip, and to try somewhere between .5 and 5 milligrams somewhere between half an hour to two hours before your new bedtime (everybody is different, and less is more if you’re unsure how much to take) in your new destination. The Mayo Clinic suggests that if you’re flying west, give melatonin a try in the mornings, and also says that either way the the dosage doesn’t make much difference. Such is life. But don’t take melatonin long-term without checking in with a doctor.

Drink water

Garbage Level: Taking out the trash before your roommate has to remind you
This one’s pretty straightforward. Your state of hydration doesn’t really affect your circadian rhythms, but altitude dehydrates you and the worse shape your body is in, the less efficiently it’s able to bounce back from a 10-hour flight to Berlin. Water is good. The reason water is not higher up on this list is just because you ... already know about water.

Avoid alcohol and coffee

Garbage Level: Crumpled-up receipt bouncing off the rim of the recycling bin and rolling under the fridge
Alcohol is a sedative, so if you’re sensitive about derailing your sleep schedule, it’s probably not a good idea to sacrifice your “real” post-flight rest with unsatisfying, cramped unconsciousness in flight. It also dehydrates you, especially at altitude, so if you opt for some of those fun lil mini bottles at least get some water to go along with them.

Coffee is also dehydrating, so if caffeine affects you it’s best to avoid it during your flight or after landing. Basically, time your cup of joe far in advance, no less than six or eight hours before your new bedtime. You’ll be better for it the following day. Also, keep drinking water.

Exercise

Garbage Level: First joint you ever rolled
It’s probably best to avoid strenuous exercise at least for the day or two before your long-haul trip, because your muscles won’t be able to recover properly in the air. Emphasis is on the “strenuous” -- your regular run, yoga class, or pickup basketball game won’t set you back. After you land, outdoor exercise is ideal for all the reasons you’d expect; it’s like going for a walk, but ... more so. Not always feasible, but helpful if you have the means.

Adjust your schedule in advance

Garbage Level: Those weird hard candies your great aunt gives you at Thanksgiving
You can get a head start adjusting your circadian rhythms the week or so before you fly,  incrementally shifting your daily routines closer to match your destination’s. We’re not just talking bedtimes, we’re also talking mealtimes and overall exposure to light. A whole lot of people advocate this, and it does appear to work, at least potentially, if you expose yourself to the various right kinds of light and are also traveling east. The reason it’s not higher on this list is just, who has the fucking time for all that?

If you don’t have a flexible work schedule that lets you spend business hours in the dark and/or sleeping, this method isn’t the most realistic, and even the most effective jet-lag hack in the world would be no kind of hack at all if you can’t actually use it. If you do have the means and care about jet lag enough to put in the work beforehand, then sure -- there are loads of services, like Entrain and Stop Jet Lag, which promise to help you train your body to a new time zone via carefully adhering to a new custom-designed schedule of light exposure and feeding times. Barring that, though, you might still see some benefits from just tweaking your bedtime in the days before your flight.
 

in-flight food
Save your big meals for after you're back on the ground. | Megan Chong

Eat carbs

Garbage Level: Your mix CDs from high school
Go in for a big carby dinner after you land; this is one of the few occasions where a food coma can be in your best interests.

But also: Don’t eat carbs

Garbage Level: Your mix CDs from college
Lots of folks advocate skipping carbs while you’re in the air so you don’t exacerbate the post-flight sluggishness (you can still make up for lost time at dinner later). Though this does lead to a lot of conflating the complex, generally healthier carbs with the simple, naptime-inducing ones. Most fruits are carby as hell, but they also have lots of nice things like antioxidants that can help your body sort itself out from the stress of a long flight, too.

Don’t eat anything?

Garbage Level: Your ex's mix CDs from their gap year
The internal clock that tells us it’s time to sleep is strong, but the one that tells us it’s time to eat is actually stronger. There is some scientific support behind fasting for 16 hours prior to breakfast time in your new destination, though the research was conducted on mice and not humans. If you do fast, definitely keep drinking water.

Some people really lean into intermittent fasting for the four days prior to departure, a practice derived from something called the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag Diet. The website antijetlagdiet.com is now defunct, but you can see the diet plan archived here. If it looks rather dated, that’s because it is. It was invented in the ’80s (by the same guy who later co-founded Stop Jet Lag) and while I’m not discounting anecdotal success among anyone who’s tried it, the scientific support seems to boil down to a 2002 study published in Military Medicine, which found that members of the National Guard who volunteered to follow the diet in the days before their deployment and/or return were up to 16.2 times less likely to experience jet lag than a placebo group. It says that the diet was most effective on those who had been living active lifestyles and who, notably, had not had a problem with jet lag in the past.

Now, none of this means the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag Diet is bogus. Proponents -- including mediaoutlets -- will recite to you that the Army, Navy, CIA, Canadian National Swim Team, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Ronald Reagan have all used the diet. Except none of them actually say whether it worked, and the Argonne National Laboratory, where the diet was developed, doesn’t even go as far as saying it was used by all those people -- it just says “Argonne has provided information about” the diet to all those people. So perhaps we can dial it down slightly about the righteous scientific support here.

Stretch

Garbage Level: Freshman-year political philosophy paper
This is more about the effects of long flights on your blood circulation than your sleep cycles, but, like the drinking water thing, there are several upsides and zero downsides. Limbering up your muscles (which will shorten and get all cramped during the flight) could conceivably help your body get in tune with those circadian rhythms. Stretch as much as you can before, during, and after your flight  -- here’s a handy list of moves you can try around the airport or on your flight. Elevating your legs for a few minutes after you land is also in the flight attendant arsenal for how to recover from long-haul flights, and compression socks can help with your circulation, too.

Probiotics

Garbage Level: Astrology
Look, probiotics are bullshit. The engine behind their recent surge in popularity is entirely commercial, not scientific, and most of you out there have organs that clean house just fine on their own. Ingesting probiotics before that big trip you’ve been planning all year are a waste of your money.

But for someone who’s subjected to jet lag all the time, like a flight attendant, probiotics might get a pass. That kind of irregular schedule can do a number on your gut bacteria, in which case probiotics can pick up some of the slack. Same for shift workers, or anyone whose sleep schedule, and thus circadian rhythms, are disrupted chronically and not just temporarily. But honestly guys, the majority of you really don’t need to try this “remedy.”

Choose airplane seats strategically

Garbage Level: Giving up K-Cup pods but still using disposable cups
This website shows you where the path of the sun will be relevant to your flight and when the sun will rise and set as your flight progresses, so you know which side of the plane will be brightest and “so you can plan your nap and sleep times” and I just … what in the world. Just close your window shade. Like, I am very attached to window seats and I’m all for the idea of choosing your seat (assuming you have that option) based on which side lets you enjoy the window longer, but to plan your nap and sleep times? Just close your window shade! Did they forget about the window shades? Like, how to move things up and down? What is happening.

nasal spray
Stop this. | Megan Chong

Flush your nose with saline solution

Garbage Level: Petrified trail mix that's been trapped between the driver's seat and the console for three years
I hadn’t heard this one before, but apparently clearing out the dust and germs from your sinuses can help support your immune system, which can help all your various internal bodily functions run smoothly, which can help you potentially stay hydrated and recover from jet lag more quickly. People are really doing the most connecting these dots to jet lag at this point, though.

Anyway, being both a diligent journalist and an absolute chump for quick fixes promising to make me healthy, I picked up a bottle of generic saline spray from my local Duane Reade for, I think, $4.79, and it is with an immense feeling of indignance and betrayal that I report: What the fuck. Saline spray is nasty! Using saline spray is like shooting a turkey baster full of brine from the ocean all the way up your nasal cavity and into your brain and then it runs back down your sinuses, you can taste it and everything, it’s so gross, why are you guys doing this to yourselves jet lag is not that serious oh my god.

Take activated charcoal

Garbage Level: goop.com Mother's Day sale
Basically the same premise as the saline thing. It’s possible that it is less disgusting and deserves to be above it on this list instead of below, but I didn’t try it because I don’t trust jet-lag influencers anymore.

Beam light into your brain through your ears

Garbage Level: Thoughts and prayers
This $153 HumanCharger is a sort of portable version of the light therapy used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. A study published by the Aerospace Medical Association found it promising, though a reviewer who actually tried it found it less so.

Jet lag-recovery spa services

Garbage Level: Landfill containing all the free sunglasses from your last corporate retreat
Massage therapy. LED light therapy. Floating in isolation tanks. Hydration Rooms that will set you up with a post-flight IV drip. $300+ at-home jet lag IV bags, for those of you not in convenient proximity to a hydration room. More activated charcoal, but in an expensive way.

All of this is nonsense for rich people.

If you’d like to enjoy a nice spa treatment, by all means do so, but none of this stuff has any miraculous sway over your circadian rhythms. Everything is just tenuously linked to jet lag on the premise that it could help your body recover from whatever it might need to recover from, which is to say it’s all the more expensive version of drinking water and stretching. These treatments might feel nice when you’re fatigued and sore after a long flight, and that’s great! But ultimately, it’s misleading to imply they reset your internal clock or anything like that. Still, most of them are harmless. Except maybe the IV bags.

Take sleeping pills

Garbage Level: Setting a trash fire in your front yard because the dumpster is full
There’s been some research on the efficacy of Lunesta and Ambien for jet lag, taken around bedtime once you’ve arrived at your destination. But generally speaking, a good rule of thumb with psychiatric medication is to not go in for any of the heavier stuff unless you truly need it, and you should get a doc’s opinion here, too.

Take amphetamines (but seriously, don't)

Garbage Level: Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Don't do this! Big Pharma loves to fund studies with the foregone conclusion of “finding” new uses for already existing drugs. For example, the makers of Nuvigil (a stimulant usually prescribed for sleep disorders like narcolepsy) conducted clinical trials to show whether the drug was an effective treatment for jet lag. No prizes for guessing the results: It “improved wakefulness,” but that’s not quite the same thing as shaking off jet lag. Such attempts have been repeatedly bounced by the FDA over the years. (I am not a doctor, but before I started working at Thrillist I covered mental health for other media outlets, and I’ve also taken prescribed Nuvigil and Adderall and Vyvanse at various points, so it’s not like I’m completely pulling this out of my butt.) These things are addictive! Jet lag is not that serious you guys. Jeez.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.