Dealing with jet lag is one of the most frustrating aspects of travel. After you step off the plane and check into your hotel, few things are as annoying as spending a day or two getting in sync with your new time zone.
While it’s normal to feel tired after a long flight across time zones, some people are affected by jet lag more than others.
Today, a variety of cures and remedies are available to treat jet lag, from over-the-counter pills and herbal supplements to prescription medications. However, not all of these jet lag remedies are equally effective, with some backed up by little in the way of scientific evidence.
Below, we’ve looked at why and how jet lag occurs, as well as the various cures, remedies and medications that are available to treat it. We’ve also listed some non-pharmaceutical ways that you can get into sync with a new time zone, from pre-travel tactics to morning routines for your new destination.
If you’ve ever traveled across multiple time zones, you’ve no doubt experienced one or several of the symptoms of jet lag.
Jet lag occurs when your body’s own internal clock, known as its circadian rhythm, becomes out of sync with your current time zone.
For example, if you fly from New York City to London, you’ll land in a time zone that’s five hours ahead of the one your body is used to. While it’s quick and easy to adjust the time in your mind, or on your watch or smartphone, your body’s physiological processes can take a little longer.
The precise symptoms of jet lag can vary between people. When you’re jet lagged, it’s common to feel tired during the daytime, to find it difficult to fall asleep at a normal time, to wake up at an earlier or later time than normal, or to just find it harder to focus and concentrate.
Some people also experience digestive issues when jet lagged, such as indigestion, bloating or diarrhea.
Not all people experience jet lag, however most people experience at least one symptom when they travel across at least two time zones. Most of the time, the symptoms of jet lag worsen as you travel across more time zones.
Interestingly, studies have shown that jet lag is normally worse after flying east than west. This is because flying to the east requires your body to adjust to an earlier-than-normal bedtime (an advance in your circadian rhythm), rather than a late night.
Add that nap you took on the plane, the couple of cups of coffee you drank on the way and the adrenaline rush of arriving in a foreign country into the equation and jet lag can often be severe, costing you both your energy and your valuable vacation time.
With Americans making upwards of 90 million trips abroad every year, including more than 40 million trips outside North America, a lucrative industry has popped up to deal with jet lag.
Just like cures for other common ailments, not all jet lag remedies are equally effective. While some are supported by real scientific evidence, others rely more on marketing to stand out as effective options for feeling better after a long trip.
To make finding information easier, we’ve sorted the currently available jet lag cures into three categories.
The first consists of over-the-counter jet lag cures. These are the products you can buy at the airport drug store or online without a prescription. While some of these products aren’t backed up by much in the way of science, others really do work and can have significant benefits.
The second consists of prescription medications that can treat jet lag. These are typically the most effective options available and may be a good option if you fly frequently or often find it difficult to adjust to a new time zone.
The third consists of exercises, lifestyle changes and other tactics that you can use to make it easier to deal with jet lag. For shorter flights, these are often effective on their own. For longer flights, you may want to try these along with jet lag medication.
Although the most effective treatments for jet lag require a prescription, there are several sleep aids that you can buy over the counter that can make adjusting to a new time zone easier.
Of these, one of the most popular is melatonin -- a naturally-occurring hormone that’s involved in regulating the body’s sleep-wake cycle. We’ve explained how melatonin works, as well as its value as a jet lag cure, below.
Melatonin is a hormone that’s produced by your body’s pineal gland to promote sleep. It plays a key role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle, helping you to feel tired and ready for bed when it’s late at night.
Your body produces melatonin in response to darkness. Studies indicate that exposure to bright light late at night can suppress melatonin production, keeping you awake for longer and making it more difficult to fall asleep.
Melatonin is available as an over-the-counter sleep aid. It’s one of several active ingredients in our Sleep Gummy Vitamins, along with chamomile and L-theanine.
Research shows that melatonin may help to treat jet lag. In a 2002 review, researchers looked at nine trials that involved the use of melatonin by airline staff, airline passengers and military personnel.
All nine of these trials found that melatonin, when taken near the target bedtime at the person’s destination, reduced jet lag in people who traveled across five or more time zones.
The researchers found that doses of melatonin from 0.5mg to 5mg were similarly effective as jet lag remedies, although people who used a 5mg dose typically fell asleep faster and slept better than those who used a 0.5mg dose.
The review concluded that melatonin is “remarkably effective” at reducing or preventing jet lag in travelers.
To use melatonin, take the recommended dosage about 30 to 60 minutes before you plan to go to bed. It’s also recommended to either dim or turn off bright lights and avoid using any devices with a brightly lit screen, as these can suppress your body’s natural melatonin release.
A natural ingredient that’s popular as a tea, chamomile has long been associated with improved sleep.
While there’s little scientific research on chamomile’s effectiveness as a jet lag cure, there have been several studies of chamomile as a sleep aid, some of which have found that it may help to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
In one study, elderly people experienced improvements in sleep quality after using a chamomile extract. In another study, researchers found that chamomile tea may have anti-anxiety effects in people with generalized anxiety disorder.
We’ve explained these study findings, and others, in more detail in our guide to chamomile tea as a sleep aid.
While these findings aren’t directly related to jet lag, chamomile’s easy availability, low price and light herbal taste make it an option worth considering if you don’t get severely jet lagged but like to have a relaxing pre-sleep ritual when traveling.
A variety of other natural sleep aids, including valerian root and passionflower, are occasionally promoted as natural jet lag remedies. Overall, the evidence for these is mostly mixed, with little in the way of research specifically focused on jet lag.
We’ve covered 10 of these products in our guide to natural sleep aids, with information on which natural sleep aids are backed up by real science and which aren’t.
A variety of prescription medications are used to treat jet lag. The most common are drugs such as zolpidem (the active ingredient in Ambien®) and doxepin (Silenor®), which can make it easier to sleep easier either en route or after arriving.
Zolpidem is a hypnotic medication that’s widely prescribed for insomnia. You may have heard of it under the brand name Ambien. It’s one of the most common sleep medications on the market, with millions of prescriptions in the United States alone.
As a treatment for insomnia, zolpidem can reduce the amount of time required to fall asleep and increase the amount of time people spend asleep.
Several studies of zolpidem have found that it’s effective as a treatment for jet lag. In one study from 2001, regular travelers were given either zolpidem or a placebo after traveling east across five to nine time zones.
The researchers found that the travelers given zolpidem had a longer total sleep time, reduced nighttime awakenings and a higher average sleep quality than those given the placebo.
Another study from 2001 compared zolpidem to melatonin as a sleep medication for use during a long-haul flight. While all treatments were effective in reducing jet lag, zolpidem produced the most significant improvements in in-flight sleep quality and jet lag after arrival.
In short, zolpidem works well as a treatment for jet lag, albeit with some side effects. As quite a strong sedative, zolpidem can have effects that often persist through the next day, meaning you may feel slightly drowsy and tired after waking up from zolpidem-assisted sleep.
We’ve explained these side effects in more detail, as well as how likely they are to occur, in our guide to prescription sleeping pills.
Doxepin is a tricyclic antidepressant that’s prescribed for a variety of conditions, including sleep issues such as insomnia. Studies of doxepin show that it increases sleep duration and quality at relatively small doses, often without the next-morning hangover effects of drugs like zolpidem.
While there’s little research on doxepin’s effectiveness as a jet lag treatment, its effects on sleep duration and quality could make it an good option for travelers who find it difficult to fall and stay asleep after flying across multiple time zones.
We’ve dug into doxepin’s effectiveness as a sleep aid in more detail in our guide to doxepin and sleep.
Benzodiazepines such as diazepam (the active ingredient in Valium®), lorazepam (Ativan®) and alprazolam (Xanax®) are often prescribed to people who have difficulty traveling, either to make falling asleep easier or simply to deal with the anxiety many people experience when flying.
Almost all benzodiazepines work by slowing down nerve activity in the brain, reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and nervousness that are common while traveling.
Benzodiazepines have a long history as jet lag medications, with several studies showing that they may be able to enhance circadian adaptation and make relaxing easier during long-haul flights.
For example, a 2000 study of triazolam (the active ingredient in Halcion®) found that it can help people adapt to a new sleep schedule.
A 1997 study of alprazolam (the active ingredient in Xanax) found that it can reduce anxiety in people with fear of flying.
Despite these advantages, benzodiazepines can also have serious downsides. First, research has indicated that although certain benzodiazepines can make traveling easier for people with flight anxiety, they may actually increase flight anxiety in the long term.
Second, benzodiazepines can be very addictive, especially when used over the long term, with regular use potentially leading to benzodiazepine dependence.
Finally, because many benzodiazepines have long half-lives, some users experience morning drowsiness and a hangover effect after using these medications to treat flight anxiety or to fall asleep easily after traveling. Some benzodiazepines can even cause rebound insomnia.
We’ve covered these side effects and disadvantages in more detail in our guides to how drugs like Xanax and Valium are used for sleep.
While over-the-counter sleep aids and prescription medications can be helpful in treating jet lag, it’s often possible to reduce the effects of jet lag with exercises, lifestyle changes, early planning and other techniques. We’ve listed several of these techniques below.
If you arrive at your destination and don’t feel as tired as you’d expect on your first night, taking a hot bath can help you calm down and fall asleep easier.
Researchers have found that taking a warm bath before bed may enhance sleep quality. In a 1999 study conducted in Japan, people who bathed before going to bed more often reported “good sleep” and “quickness of falling asleep” than those who didn’t.
Another small study from the 1980s found that people who took a long warm bath before bed experienced an increase in sleepiness at bedtime.
This is because your body temperature increases while you’re bathing, then drops quickly as you adjust to room temperature. Researchers believe that this can augment the natural body temperature change that occurs before sleeping, making it easier to fall and stay asleep.
So, when should you take your pre-sleep bath for maximum sleepiness? Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that bathing around 90 minutes before bed in water heated to 104 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit is best for improving sleep quality.
Depending on what time of the day you’re flying, sleeping during your flight (or drinking coffee, as we’ve covered below) could help or hinder your ability to deal with jet lag.
To avoid sleeping or drinking a cup of coffee at a bad time for your sleep quality, it can help to reset your watch to your destination’s time zone when you board the plane. This way, you can start to behave as if you were already in your new time zone to ease your transition.
If you’re traveling to a new time zone that’s relatively similar to your current one, it can help to make small changes to your sleep schedule over a few days before you fly.
For example, as we mentioned above, flying from New York City to London means changing to a time zone that’s five hours ahead of your current one. If you normally sleep at midnight, you’ll effectively sleep at the equivalent of 7pm on the first night in your new destination.
To make adjusting to this new time zone easier, try moving your bedtime slightly earlier for a few days before you travel.
For example, by shifting your bedtime 30 minutes earlier for four nights before you travel, you’ll go to sleep two hours earlier than normal, making the effective difference between your bedtime in your old time zone and the new time zone three hours instead of five hours.
If you’re flying across several time zones to the west, try going to bed slightly later than normal for a few nights instead. While this approach won’t always completely get rid of jet lag, it could make it easier to fall asleep close to your normal bedtime in your new time zone.
Experts believe that it takes the body about one day to adjust to each new time zone you travel across, meaning you’ll need around three days to fully adjust after a flight that takes you across three time zones.
If you’re traveling for an important event and need to be fully in sync with your time zone, it can help to arrive at your destination a day or two early and give yourself enough time to adjust.
Coffee, energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages are great for giving you an early-morning energy boost. However, caffeine’s long half-life means that it can easily interfere with your sleep when you travel, especially if you’re traveling across time zones to the east.
Caffeine has a half-life of around five to six hours, meaning that you’ll still have about half of the caffeine in a cup of coffee circulating in your bloodstream five to six hours after you drink it. This can make caffeine a serious impediment to good sleep when you travel across time zones.
In a 2013 study, researchers concluded that drinking caffeine six hours before bedtime can have a disruptive effect on sleep.
Let’s use our hypothetical New York City to London flight as an example to show how caffeine consumption can make dealing with jet lag more difficult.
Let’s say your flight departs at 10am. Not wanting to feel tired for a daytime flight, you order a Grande Americano at Starbucks (225mg of caffeine) before boarding, then have another small cup of coffee with your in-flight meal three hours later (another 100mg of additional caffeine).
In total, this is around 325mg of caffeine. When your flight touches down just over six hours later at almost 10pm, about half of this caffeine is in your bloodstream. Combined with the difficulty of falling asleep in a new time zone, this leftover caffeine can make falling asleep very hard.
To counter this, try drinking coffee and other caffeinated drinks as if you were already in the new time zone. If you’re traveling east, restrict your caffeine consumption to the early morning so you land without any leftover caffeine in your bloodstream for an easier night’s sleep.
If you’re traveling west, you have more freedom to drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages as you normally would.
Most of the time, your body and mind will recover from jet lag naturally over the course of a few days. Taking steps to deal with jet lag ahead of time, such as adjusting your sleep schedule and avoiding too much caffeine, may make this process faster and easier.
If you find it hard to deal with jet lag naturally, over-the-counter products that contain melatonin, such as our Sleep Gummy Vitamins, can make falling asleep in a different time zone easier.
For more severe cases of jet lag, or if you find it difficult to fall asleep on long haul flights, sleep medications such as doxepin can help you to feel tired, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep in a different time zone.