As long-distance travel returns post-pandemic pause, many of us are packing our bags for far-flung destinations. But along with sights to see and cultures to explore comes a not-so-welcome travel companion: Jet lag.
Jet lag, or jet lag disorder, is the temporary (but uncomfortable) feeling that results when your body’s circadian rhythm lags behind updating to the external environment. In other words, your phone — and your Oura Ring — may automatically update to the correct time, but your body’s biological rhythms are not able to promptly adjust at the drop of a hat, says sleep researcher Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., author of Sleep for Success and Oura advisor.
What Causes Jet Lag?
Jet lag symptoms may include a feeling of general sluggishness; sleep issues like insomnia, early waking, or excessive fatigue; difficulty focusing; and even gastrointestinal issues. You may also notice signals on your Oura app that your body is adjusting to a new time zone, such as changes in body temperature or heart rate, Robbins notes.
One major factor impacting jet lag (but can also help cure it — more on that later): Sunlight. The presence and lack of light influences your circadian rhythm — or your body’s internal clock, which is based on the 24-hour cycle of the sun, and tells your body when it’s time to sleep and when to be awake.
Other contributing factors to jet lag include the pressurization in planes, your own hydration level (keep sipping that H2O!), your age (older adults are more likely to experience jet lag), and the direction you’re traveling (heading east is harder to adjust to, since you lose time).
Generally, the further you’ve traveled and the more time zones you’ve crossed, the more you may be affected by jet lag. “It can take one day or longer per time zone to adjust, so if you travel five hours ahead, it could take you five days or longer to get over jet lag,” Robbins notes.
All that said, you don’t have to fear losing out on your well-deserved vacation time. Below, seven tips that can help you cope with jet lag and make the most of your precious PTO:
Expert-Backed Tips to Manage Jet Lag
1. First, adjust before traveling. “The best strategy for international travelers is to prepare,” Robbins says. Gradually adjust your bedtime by 15 or 30 minutes — earlier if you’re heading east, later if you’re going westward — to nudge your circadian rhythm towards the new time zone. You can even start adjusting your meal times toward your destination, as the time you eat can impact your circadian rhythm.
2. Then, fully switch over. Once you land in your destination, adjust your clocks, bedtimes, and meal times to the new time zone, Robbins recommends. Try not to compare what time it is at “home” versus where you are now, as tempting as it may be.
3. Take advantage of the light. If you are trying to stay up to adjust to a new time zone, make sure to get some evening light to encourage your body to stay awake. Conversely, if you traveled west and you’re trying to adjust, avoid that early evening sunlight so you can prepare your body to go to bed earlier.
Either way, make sure to get some morning sunlight when you wake up in your destination to encourage your circadian rhythm to start adjusting. On a work trip and staying up late on a computer or phone? Try blue-light blocking glasses to avoid sleep-disrupting blue light.
4. Turn down the temp. Your body naturally cools down to prepare for sleep. Turning down the thermostat in your bedroom can help jumpstart that process. Another sleep-promoting hack: Take a hot bath or shower before your target bedtime to encourage your body to wind down. (Here’s why that trick works so well.)
5. Consider melatonin. Research shows melatonin can help treat jet lag. While you want to avoid sleeping pills, you can take a small amount of melatonin (1 or 2 mg), the sleep-inducing hormone, Robbins says. Be sure to choose a high-quality, pharmaceutical-grade supplement as studies suggest dosage can vary by brand.
6. Get moving. “Exercise can help us stay attuned to the pattern of light and darkness in your environment, thereby making adjustments to time zones easier,” Robbins notes. “Moreover, exercise can reduce stress and improve our ability to fall asleep.” Fit in a walk, jog, or yoga session to help you adjust to your new environment, she suggests. Keep track of your Activity Score in your Activity tab in your Oura app to ensure it’s optimally aligned with your Readiness Score.
7. Nap if you need. If you took a redeye, any sleep you got was probably fitful and restless. Feel free to nap that afternoon when you arrive to your destination, Robbins says, but keep it less than 90 minutes in duration. (Check out the Explore tab in your Oura app to find calming breathing exercises and meditations to help you doze off.) Then, take a walk to soak up the natural light in the afternoon — also a great excuse to explore your new surroundings!
About the Oura Expert
Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., is an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an Associate Scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her research uses marketing and novel communication tools and technologies (i.e. smartphones and other mobile devices) to design persuasive behavior change interventions to improve sleep and circadian health. In 2011, Dr. Robbins co-authored Sleep for Success! with Dr. James B. Maas. Dr. Robbins’ research has appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Readers’ Digest, and she has appeared on The Today Show, Live! With Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, Fox Business News, ABC Nightline, CNBC, and CBS This Morning.