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From my personal anecdotal experience, I've found it worse when travelling east around the globe. I also tend to stay awake most if not all of the flight, so sleeping time doesn't tend to matter as the flights from London to NZ are minimum 28 hours. Shorter flights you can arrange around daylight hours to reduce this, but otherwise, there must be better strategies to help out with.

UPDATE:

So I was fine despite nearly 48 hours of non-sleep from Mongolia to London, up the next 3 days at 8am to do stuff. However, the second week has been awful, sleepless nights and erratic sleepiness. Any theories?

Also see: How do you prepare for long haul flights?

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Definitely agree on the eastward = bad, westward = not so bad. –  hippietrail Jul 16 '11 at 8:15
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Also my reactions are getting worse and longer as I get older, despite accumulating more experience in dealing with it. –  hippietrail Jul 16 '11 at 8:15
    
I've heard altitude is worse the more times you go up and down as well, although that's just hearsay, I can't back that up with science ;) –  Mark Mayo Jul 16 '11 at 10:25
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I never get jetlag flying from the Americas to Australasia. Maybe I'll go to bed a bit early for two days, but nothing dramatic. In the other direction though I'm totally wrecked for at least three days but it lasts longer and longer as I get older. Fortunately I never have meetings, appointments, or work straight away when I arrive. –  hippietrail Nov 14 '11 at 9:35
    
I wish my jetlag only lasted 3 days. It's very easy for it to last over a week for me.. Sometimes two weeks. I think it might have to do with how you are as a sleeper in general. If you tend to have trouble sleeping, you are more prone to get hit hard with jetlag. I also don't get much jet lag going from Thailand to USA, but coming back to Thailand, I always get hammered. –  Adam Nov 16 '11 at 7:23

8 Answers 8

up vote 43 down vote accepted

I find several things help, some are physical or physiological while others are purely mental:

  • I find it easier to adjust to "it's morning, get up now!" - as you get when you fly east - if I get light on my face as soon as possible. On the plane, open your shade, eat the "breakfast" they give you, and do the things you do in the morning. In a hotel, get those curtains open. Go for a little walk outside before breakfast.
  • change your watch to destination time. Do not say, or allow others to say, that it's "really" 3am, or that your body thinks it's 3am, or anything other than the time it is where you are
  • Eat when you're hungry, regardless of the clock, but sleep, drink coffee, drink alcohol, and watch TV only according to what the clock says is ok where you are
  • Sleep on the plane. Even for a four hour flight, and even in the middle of the day - it's boring, after all, and getting a little extra sleep is bound to help with tiredness later. This is especially important when flying west since you'll need to stay up late. And when you wake up, even if there's lots of flight remaining, switch to destination time. Treat the asleep time as the transition.
  • Drink lots of fluids. Flying is dehydrating, jetlag makes you grumpy and headachy, and waiting until the appropriate time for a meal can mean getting thirsty. Have water or other non-caffeine non alcohol drinks a little more often than you otherwise would.
  • If you know that jetlag hits you hard, arrange your schedule for the first few days of your trip to be low key. A long train ride with plenty of staring out the window could be boring, but if you're tired and adjusting to the time shift, it's way better than being on stage giving a make-or-break presentation. If you give yourself a day or two for jetlag transition, don't take those days back by leaving vital work (like rehearsing the talk) for then. Same for when you come home.
  • Bring something to occupy yourself if you wake up long before your travelling companions. Ideally you could read or do email for 30 minutes, then go back to sleep.

Don't take it as a sign of weakness if you get hit hard by jetlag. Some do and some don't. But there are things you can do that help.

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My normal sleep schedule is so out of whack that I never feel jetlag. :D +1 for the sleeping on flights tip, it does help feel more refreshed. –  Ankur Banerjee Jul 16 '11 at 7:07
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There's more to the "light on my face" theory: Light therapy can help in adjusting rapidly to a new timezone (or shift work). –  Ingmar Mar 15 '12 at 20:17
    
@Ingmar agreed: if I had to pick only one tip from this list that would be the one. It makes all the difference. –  Kate Gregory Feb 22 '13 at 12:57
    
There is a time to drink coffee or alcohol ? ;-) –  Relaxed Jun 13 '13 at 15:46

This article describes what is known as the Argonne Anti-Jet-Lag-Diet and is a method which seems deceptively simple, while contradicting some bits of advice offered by other answers here. I have yet to try it myself, but a coworker says it works wonders for his wife on trans-Atlantic trips, and for his brother on cross-continental-US trips.

The basic concept is to fool your body's internal clock by changing your eating habits. The basic plan works like this:

  1. DETERMINE BREAKFAST TIME at destination on day of arrival.

  2. FEAST-FAST-FEAST-FAST - Start four days before breakfast time in step 1. On day one, FEAST; eat heartily with high-protein breakfast and lunch and a high-carbohydrate dinner. No coffee except between 3 and 5 p.m. On day two, FAST on light meals of salads, light soups, fruits and juices. Again, no coffee except between 3 and 5 p.m. On day three, FEAST again. On day four, FAST; if you drink caffeinated beverages, take them in morning when traveling west, or between 6 and 11 p.m. when traveling east.

  3. BREAK THE FINAL FAST at destination breakfast time. No alcohol on the plane. If the flight is long enough, sleep until normal breakfast time at destination, but no later. Wake up and FEAST on a high protein breakfast. Stay awake and active. Continue the day's meals according to mealtimes at the destination.

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One point that hasn't been mentioned: Watch out for what you eat or drink.

I recently traveled to Switzerland, thus getting up 7 hours earlier, and did what I usually do: Little or no sleep on the way over, and immediately adjust to the local time. But I had a terrible time getting over jet lag.

It turned out to be due to cereal.

For some reason, dairy products make me sleepy (milk, ice cream, etc.). At my hotel, I had a bowl or two of cereal for breakfast in the morning. I'd return to my room and practically crash.

So before you go, make a plan about what and when you'll eat and drink. In my case, it would be:

Morning

  • no cereal with milk
  • soda with caffeine is OK

Evening

  • cereal with milk is OK
  • no soda with caffeine after 5 pm

You'll have to make your personal list based on what you might eat or drink that makes you sleepy (e.g. alcohol) or wakeful (chocolate, which has caffeine, or coffee).

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Great and insightful answer! Although not sure about taking soda/coke for breakfast ;) –  Mark Mayo Jun 16 '13 at 1:41
    
Well, to each his own. :) Some people like to drink a beverage made out of beans and water at breakfast, if you can believe that. –  Kyralessa Jun 17 '13 at 7:16

You can minimize jet lag by travelling at a slow pace.

For instance, getting from New York to Southhampton with the Queen Mary II gives you seven 23h-long days.

More usual is to travel by bus/train/hitchhiking and have many stops along the way.

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For the scientifically minded, this is well documented in medical research. Take a look at this article for a lot of info. Their recommended procedure is shown in this figure. The basic points:

  • No miracle cure: your body adjusts slowly, and aggressive tactics to shift by more than an hour or so a day won't help.
  • Sunlight exposure is key:

    • If you're traveling west, avoid early morning sun starting a few days before your trip.
    • If you're traveling east, be sure to get early morning sun. Again, starting a day or so before the trip helps.
    • If you can't get sunlight, a full-spectrum "lightbox" is the next best thing.
  • Melatonin also helps when traveling east, but should be taken 4.5 hours before sleep.

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Wear earplugs during the flight. They'll help you sleep on the plane and you'll also be less frazzled when you get off. I recommend the silicon putty ones, since you can mold them to the shape of your ear opening. The foam and rubber flange ones can be uncomfortable.

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I usually don't suffer from jetlag if it is possible to stretch the previous day, so that you go to sleep really tired (even though it is a weird time for you to go to sleep). In general it is easier to adapt when travelling west, because it is always easier to stay awake a few more hours in the evening (have a drink, etc.). When travelling east, I prefer to get an overnight flight and arrive in the morning or midday. The first day is going to be tough (as most people don't get enough sleep on the plane), but you need to make it to the evening without any naps. The next day should be almost OK :)

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+1 for no naps on the first day when traveling east. Just recently I managed to do that and was fine the next day, while my wife gave in and was jetlaged for several days. –  Alan Mendelevich Jul 17 '11 at 4:08

Different people, react different to jetlag. Some just don't have any problems, others are out of sync for days. I am sort of in between.

I deal with jetlag by trying to have a more irregular day/night structure in the days before the journey, so my body doesn't notice that much difference when crossing multiple time zones. At the same time I stay away from alcohol before, during and after the flight. When the jetlag still affects me, running or cycling seems to ease the lethargic mood.

This is from personal experience without any guarantee it will work for you.

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