Many of my trips with students are to Latin America, which often allows us to remain in the same time zone (Central) or maybe shift only an hour from our usual. But trips to Europe, Asia, Africa, or Oceania pose a greater challenge to our bodies: Jet Lag.

What is Jet Lag?

As described on the CDC website, jet lag is caused by a mismatch between a person’s normal daily rhythms and a new time zone. It usually occurs when you travel across more than three time zones, the more time zones, the stronger the effects. Besides impacting sleep by being tired during the day or unable to sleep at night, jet lag can affect your mood, your ability to concentrate, and your physical and mental states.

How to prevent it–before you travel

A little preparation before a long trip can go a long way in preventing the effects of jet lag before you even have a chance to experience them. Some of the best tips before travel are:

  • Start shifting your schedule toward the new time zone a day or two before your trip. If traveling east, go to bed an hour or two earlier than usual. If traveling west, go to bed an hour or two later than usual. The further you are traveling, you may want to make a couple of adjustments in the days before travel, if your schedule allows.
  • Be hydrated. In general, being in a healthier condition will help your body weather these changes. Anything that is leaving your body already stressed (like being dehydrated) can make it harder for your body to adjust to this new stressor.
  • Avoid caffeine. While keeping yourself awake later might be an adjustment you need to make, caffeine can actually work against what you’re trying to do, by impacting your sleepiness. Also, caffeine can contribute to dehydration
  • Sleep on the plane if it’s an overnight flight. Our flights to Spain typically leave around 4pm, and arrive in Spain about 7am…the best move is to try to sleep not too long after take off, and wake up as close to landing as possible. That way we feel more ready for a full day of touring.
  • Consider using an app. There are several apps designed to help you fight jet lag. I haven’t tried any of them myself yet, but a friend who just returned from Japan swears by Timeshifter. According to her, you plug in your flight times, and it will tell you when to stay up/sleep, when to avoid light or seek it out, and if you use things like melatonin, when to take those. She said it might feel weird to walk around your house in sunglasses to limit light exposure, but the day after she returned (Japan is 14 hours ahead of our local time) she was actually feeling pretty normal. The first use is free, and then each subsequent plan costs about $10 or you can pay an annual rate if you travel often. If you search Jet Lag in your app store, you will find other apps with the same purpose.

How to prevent it/deal with it–while you’re there

Whether “there” means your travel destination or returning back home, there are a few things you can do to acclimate more quickly to the new time.

  • Be healthy (hydrate, avoid caffeine, etc.) for all the same reasons mentioned above.
  • Eat small meals, and try to eat at normal meal times. (This of course could be easy or hard, depending on when meal times are in the country you’re entering.)
  • If you’re tired during the day, take short naps. A power nap will probably leave you unable to sleep that night, and prolong the issue.
  • Expose yourself to light and dark in the new time zone. Sunlight during the day helps your body feel like it isn’t time to sleep, even if you’re kind of tired.
  • Be active during the daytime. “Power through” so to speak. Be up and around and doing things. Going and sleeping all afternoon on the beach, while exposing you to sun (which is good), is likely to give you a nasty sunburn and not bring you into the new time zone. If you’re able to schedule a walking tour or something like that, you’ll be more likely to not feel as fatigued right away.

After the trip

If you’re traveling for a major event, experts recommend traveling 2 days before that event. Of course, with a student tour, that isn’t really possible on the way TO the country. But it’s also important to realize you’ll be adjusted to the new time zone just in time to come home, back to your original. And just like entering and leaving Daylight Saving Time throws us out of whack, returning to your original schedule is also stressful on your body.

If at all possible, try to NOT schedule very important things the day after you return. Giving yourself a brief time to adjust to this new time zone is helpful too!

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