Every December, Linda McDonald travels from her Oak Hill home to Stockton, Calif., to visit her family for Christmas. She tries to head west a few days before the holiday, but often leaves on Christmas Eve, and arrives feeling hazy and sluggish.
“I try not to let the jet lag ruin our Christmas,” said McDonald. “My family expects me to arrive energized, but since they don’t travel much, they don’t quite get why I feel like a zombie for a few days after I get there.”
Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder that can affect anyone who quickly travels across multiple time zones. It’s caused by a disruption to your body's internal clock or circadian rhythms, which tell your body when it's time to be awake and when it's time to sleep.
“To minimize jet lag, it helps if you leave home already well-rested prior to traveling.”
— Rosa Ganey, nurse health educator for the Fairfax County Health Network
Like many who are planning to travel across multiple time zones for the holidays, McDonald is dreading the effect that jet lag will have on her holiday celebrations. Fortunately, say medical experts, there are steps one can take to prevent or minimize the effects of jet lag.
What to Do
Travelers should do the following after arriving at their destinations:
Avoid situations requiring critical decision making for the first day after arrival.
Adapt to the local schedule as soon as possible.
Optimize exposure to sunlight after arrival from either direction.
Eat meals appropriate to the local time, drink plenty of water and avoid excess caffeine or alcohol.
Take short naps (20–30 minutes) to increase energy, but not undermine nighttime sleep.
— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Eat a healthy diet before and during your trip. “Eating a more protein-based diet keeps you fuller longer,” said Dr. Kajal Zalavadia of Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax. “If you know you’re going on a long plane trip, consider eggs or lean protein and avoid large portions of carbohydrates.”
Exposure to bright lights in the evening and going to bed one to two hours later for a few days prior to a flight west aids in resetting one’s body clock. Likewise, those planning trans-Atlantic flights could benefit from bright light exposure in the morning and going to bed one to two hours earlier.
“To minimize jet lag, it helps if you leave home already well-rested prior to traveling,” said Rosa Ganey, nurse health educator for the Fairfax County Health Network and a Burke resident. “Try to get some sleep during your flight.” Experts say wearing comfortable clothing might make it easier to relax during a flight as well.
Drink plenty of fluids. “Avoid juices and sodas,” said Zalavadia. “Keep yourself well hydrated with at least eight glasses of water.” Doctors also advise avoiding alcohol and caffeine during flights to help minimize jet lag.
McDonald says that she plans to wear sweatpants and pack an eye pillow and cashmere blanket in her carry-on bag. “I am going to try to sleep as much as I can on the plane,” she said. “It still might take a day or two before I feel like myself again.”