Most Jet Lag Cures Are Garbage—Here's What Actually Works
Three words: Skip the booze.
There are tons of so-called jet lag cures out there, but let’s clear one thing up first: Jet lag isn't something you can avoid. There’s no actual “cure,” despite how many claims you may hear. Even the World Health Organization has made up its mind on this.
But that doesn’t mean you have to struggle after every long-haul flight. We’re here to share some of the tried-and-true solutions that ease the recovery process. From melatonin to exercise and schedule shifting, here’s what works and what are just myths.
So, what is jet lag?
If we’re going to break down why certain hacks are better or worse than others, then we need to start with a few 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 messes with 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 (on a steamship for two weeks), your body would adjust to the new position to the sun as you went. It’s not the case with air travel. Symptoms mostly involve being fatigued, both physically and mentally, though you might also experience some nausea or indigestion (or be a little, er, backed up).
How long does jet lag last?
Because circadian rhythms 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. 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 ride it out. 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, we’ve researched some of the highly ranked tips out there to see what’s a myth and what may actually help you feel like more of a human post-flight.
Go for a walk
This is not a bad idea, especially right 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—anything that involves fresh air, exercise, and natural light will do the trick. 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. 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.
Try to avoid napping
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 6 pm 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.
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. 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. (But don’t take melatonin long-term without checking in with a doctor.)
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.
Avoid alcohol and coffee
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 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.
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; not always feasible, but helpful if you can do it.
Adjust your schedule in advance
You can get a head start adjusting your circadian rhythms the week or so before you fly by 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 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.
Sure, there are loads of services that 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.
Go in for a big, carb-heavy dinner after you land; this is one of the few occasions where a food coma can be in your best interest.
But also, don’t eat carbs
Lots of people 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 this refers to the simple, naptime-inducing carbs. Most fruits are carb-heavy, but they also provide positive things like antioxidants that can help your body sort itself out from the stress of a long flight.
Don’t eat anything
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).
Some people really lean into intermittent fasting for the four days prior to departure, 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.
This is more about the effects of long flights on your blood circulation than your sleep cycles, but, like drinking water, there are several upsides and zero downsides. Limbering up your muscles (which will shorten and get 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 list of moves you can try around the airport or on the plane). 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.
Look, probiotics aren't all they're cracked up to be. 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 is a waste of 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) is disrupted chronically (and not just temporarily). But honestly, guys, the majority of you really don’t need to try this “remedy.”
Flush your nose with saline solution
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 quicker People are really doing the most connecting these dots to jet lag at this point, though.
Take activated charcoal
Basically the same premise as the saline thing.
Jet lag recovery spa services
Massage therapy. LED light therapy. Floating in isolation tanks. Hydration Rooms that will set you up with a post-flight IV drip. Super-expensive 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.
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
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 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.
Take amphetamines (but seriously, don't)
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 see 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. So that’s a pretty big hint right there.