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Jet Lag Can Ruin Sleep. Try These Tips to Combat It When Traveling This Holiday

Visiting family or friends over the holidays? These tricks will help keep your sleep on track.

A man and a woman seated next to each other on a plane, trying to sleep.
Getty Images/Hispanolistic

This story is part of 12 Days of Tips, helping you make the most of your tech, home and health during the holiday season.

Christmas Day is one of the busiest travel days of the year, and the whole month is filled with people crossing state lines to see loved ones for the holidays. Traveling quickly across time zones can throw off your circadian rhythm, and you experience jet lag. No, jet lag isn't a made-up term that frequent flyers use to describe being tired. It's a real thing. The circadian rhythm is our internal clock; it's what helps regulate when we should go to sleep and wake up. Changing your time zone means the time you go to sleep and when your body is used to sleeping can be out of sync.

Symptoms of jet lag include but are not limited to:

  • Fatigue 
  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Headaches 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of appetite 
  • Gastrointestinal troubles

Jet lag can put a real damper on your travel plans. We pulled together a list of tips to help you adjust to the new time zone quicker and get some sleep.

Start prepping before your trip

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Making slight adjustments before entering the new time zone can lessen jet lag symptoms. To do this, you can gradually change your circadian rhythm to the new time zone by shifting the time you go to sleep and wake. Typically, you want the changes to be pretty small, around 30 minutes at a time. Doing this the week leading up to your trip can help you bounce back quicker. 

Live like the locals

When you change time zones, you want to adapt your activities as quickly as possible. Forget your old time zone; it means nothing to you now. That means eating and sleeping when you would normally, according to the new time zone, even if you wouldn't usually sleep for another three hours.

Before you take off, act like you are already there. Set your watch to the correct time, and sleep when you can. If you're flying when you would be sleeping at your destination, try and sleep on the plane to avoid jet lag. Small changes will make the bigger ones less drastic. 

Read more: Best Headphones for Sleeping

Hang out in the sunshine

Light is one of the most important ways your circadian rhythm determines when you fall asleep and wake up. As it gets dark, our bodies release melatonin to prepare for sleep. Spending time in the sun will help your body adjust to the new time zone by halting the natural release of melatonin. If you arrive at your destination during the day, don't immediately duck into your hotel room. Hang outside for a few hours and soak up the sun. 

Make sure the room is ready for sleep

Woman wearing eye mask while sleeping
Getty Images/Westend61

Sleeping in a new place can be hard. To combat this, make sure the room you're sleeping in -- whether it be a hotel room or a spare bedroom of your grandmother's house -- is conducive to sleep. 

Ways to make sleeping when traveling easy:

  • Set the thermostat to a cool temperature to keep things comfortable all night. The best temperature for sleep is 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Pack things from home to make it more comfortable -- a blanket, a white noise machine or your favorite pajamas. 
  • Try using a sleep mask to block out any light in the room.
  • Make sure you're sleeping on a comfortable mattress that suits your sleeping position and body type. 

Avoid drinking caffeine (and alcohol)

The instinct is to reach for a cup of coffee to keep you going through the fog of jet lag, but it can actually make things worse. It's not that you can't drink it; you just need to be strategic about timing. If you arrive at your destination in the evening, drinking coffee or soda will make it harder to sleep if it's too close to bedtime. Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol a few hours before bed. Substitute those beverages with water to ensure you're hydrated. Dehydration can exacerbate the symptoms of jetlag. 

Try melatonin 

Our bodies naturally produce melatonin to help regulate our circadian rhythm. As the sun goes down, our body is flooded with melatonin and we get sleepy. Melatonin supplements can help you fall asleep easier by jump-starting that process. Regarding dosage, 0.5mg is typically considered a lower dose, while 5mg is on the higher side. 

Take a warm shower or bath

After you take your melatonin, jump in the shower or soak in the tub to relax. Research suggests that taking a shower or bath can help you fall asleep faster. As you cycle through the stages of sleep, your body temperature naturally fluctuates a couple of degrees. Bathing helps that process along by cooling your body temperature. But not just any shower will do; you should aim for warm water about an hour and a half before bed. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.