Beating jet lag: top tips from a doctor

Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK
22 May 2018

I’m no stranger to jet lag, having grown up in Hong Kong with regular trips to visit family in the UK. At the time, it was mildly frustrating, but I could easily manage being tired for a couple of days while I recovered.

Fast forward to the present day, and as a junior doctor working in the NHS, I often have to adjust my body clock when working night shifts. This year, I’ve also been on a couple of short business trips. So it’s a whole new ballgame needing not only to function, but to work effectively with jet lag!

Here I’ll share some of the tricks that have worked for me to minimise the effects of jet lag. Hopefully they might help you too, so you can make the most of your time abroad.

A woman waiting for her plane in an airport

What is jet lag?

We all have an internal body clock. This is sometimes referred to as our circadian rhythm. It controls when we feel tired and when we feel awake.

Your body clock is controlled by daylight – so you get used to a regular pattern of daylight and darkness. If you travel to a different time zone, your body clock will be out of sync with the local time. This can leave you feeling sleepy during the day and wide awake at night.

The world is divided into 24 time zones, each an hour different from the next. You typically get symptoms of jet lag if you cross three or more of these zones. So if you fly from the UK to Europe, Africa or the Middle East, you probably won’t be affected too much. But if you travel from the UK to Asia, Australasia, America or Canada, chances are you will.

How can I prevent jet lag?

There are several things you can do before, during and after your flight to keep jet lag at bay.

Preventing jet lag before you travel

Gradually adjust your body clock. If possible, a few days before your trip, try moving your meal times and bedtime slightly closer to your new time zone.

  • If you’re flying east, try getting up and going to bed an hour or two earlier.
  • If you’re flying west, get up and go to bed an hour or two later.

Preventing jet lag during your journey

Change the time as soon as you can. When you board the plane, change your watch or smartphone to the time at your destination. This will allow you to get into the new time zone, sometimes a day in advance.

Stay hydrated and keep moving. Drink plenty of water before, during and after the flight. Try picking up a big bottle at the airport and drinking it throughout your journey, alongside the refreshments provided. Then aim to get up every couple of hours, take a walk and have another glass of water.

Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink. Although it may help you to nod off, alcohol affects the quality of your sleep. If you drink to the point that you get a hangover, it can make jet lag feel a whole lot worse. So if you are having a drink, try to make sure it’s no more than a couple.

Minimise caffeine. This can disrupt sleep in the same way that alcohol does. So try not to drink any more caffeine than you normally would and hold off within six hours of going to bed.

Preventing jet lag once you’ve arrived

Get outside.When you arrive, try to get into the local routine immediately and spend some time outdoors. Natural light can help your body clock adjust. Just remember that exposure to bright light in the morning will bring you closer to sleeping earlier, while light in the evening will delay sleep.

  • If you travelled east, try to get more morning light after you arrive and keep out of the sun in the afternoon. Wear sunglasses or pull the blinds down to help keep light out.
  • If you went west, try and get some afternoon light and keep out of the light in the morning.

Exercise. If you hit the gym after arriving, it might help you to feel better. Exercise can help you to get over jet lag. Some people believe that exercising too near to bedtime might stop you from sleeping as well, but there’s also evidence suggesting it may not always make a difference.

More top tips for beating jet lag

Pack properly. Keep earplugs and an eye-guard in your bag for both the flight and your trip. Don’t let uninvited noise or unwanted light spoil your experience.

Look into apps. There is a range of smartphone apps that can help you tackle jet lag. They can help with everything from planning your sleeping schedule before your trip to when to seek out light to help your body adjust. Check what’s out there – many are free.

Take a nap if you need to. If you’re feeling totally exhausted and at risk of falling asleep during something important, a short nap goes a long way. Try to limit it to 15–20 minutes so that you feel refreshed but don’t allow yourself to go into a deep sleep.

Request multiple wake-up calls. When your sleep pattern is out of sync, it’s easy to worry that you might sleep through your alarm and miss an important commitment. Put this responsibility onto someone else by requesting two wake-up calls, five minutes apart.

Time your meetings well. If you’re on a business trip, you might want to arrange important meetings to coincide with daytime back home so you feel more on the ball. Or at least wait until you’re a day into the trip before having critical meetings.

Is there a treatment for jet lag?

There’s no specific medical treatment for jet lag. If you’re concerned, you should speak to a specialist travel doctor, who may advise the following.

Sleeping tablets. If you’ve had trouble sleeping because of jet lag before, talk to a specialist doctor at a travel clinic before you go on your trip. They might suggest you take sleeping tablets for a few days after you arrive until your body clock adjusts. But don’t take them for any longer than this.

Melatonin. There’s evidence to suggest that the hormone melatonin can help improve your sleep, mood and memory. Melatonin hasn’t been licensed for jet lag yet, but a specialist travel doctor may prescribe it to you off-licence. Book an appointment at a travel clinic if you want to give this a try.

Caffeine. If you’re tired when you need to be alert, for example you’re stacked with meetings from the get-go, caffeine can help as a temporary pick-up. But don’t drink lots of coffee after midday, because it could worsen any problems you’re having sleeping.

Doing what works for you

We’re all different, so try a combination of the tips above to see what works for you. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may still feel too tired or wide awake at the wrong times. When this happens, schedule permitting, take a deep breath, get outside and make the most of your time soaking up the surroundings of your destination!




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Dr Tom Charlton
Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK

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