Jet lag is generally temporary and usually doesn't need treatment. Symptoms often improve within a few days, though they sometimes last longer.
However, if you're a frequent traveler continually bothered by jet lag, your doctor may prescribe light therapy or medications.
Your body's internal clock is influenced by exposure to sunlight, among other factors. When you travel across time zones, your body must adjust to a new daylight schedule and reset, allowing you to fall asleep and be awake at the appropriate times.
Your doctor may recommend light therapy. This involves exposure to an artificial bright light or lamp that simulates sunlight for a specific and regular amount of time when you're meant to be awake. Light therapy comes in a variety of forms, including a light box that sits on a table, a desk lamp or a light visor that you wear on your head.
Light therapy may be useful, for example, if you're a business traveler and are often away from natural sunlight during the day in a new time zone.
- Nonbenzodiazepines, such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- Benzodiazepines, such as temazepam (Restoril) and midazolam (Nayzilam)
These medications — sometimes called sleeping pills — may help you sleep during your flight and for several nights afterward. Side effects are uncommon, but may include nausea, vomiting, amnesia, sleepwalking, confusion and morning sleepiness.
Although these medications appear to help sleep duration and quality, they may not lessen daytime symptoms of jet lag. These medications are usually only recommended for people who haven't been helped by other treatments.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Use sunlight to reset your internal clock. It's the most powerful natural tool for regulating the sleep-wake cycle.
Morning light exposure can usually help you adjust to an earlier time zone (traveling eastward), while evening light helps you adapt to a later time zone (traveling westward). Plan ahead to determine the best times for light exposure based on your departure and destination points and overall sleep habits:
- Before your trip. You can start light therapy up to three days before travel to help you adjust to your new time zone before you arrive at your destination. If you're traveling east, try waking about one hour earlier than your usual wake time and get at least one hour of light exposure. Do this daily until you leave for your trip, waking one hour earlier each day. You should also adjust your bedtime to one hour earlier each night if possible. For westward travel, delay your wake and bedtimes.
- At your destination. If you've traveled eastward and crossed three to five time zones, try avoiding bright daylight first thing in the morning. Try to get several hours of bright light exposure in mid- to late morning. If you're crossing more time zones or traveling west, avoid bright light the morning of arrival, but seek sunshine in the early afternoon. During the day, dark glasses can help block out light when you need to avoid exposure. At night, draw the window blinds or drapes or use a sleep mask. For each day on your trip, gradually shift your light exposure earlier.
Combining light exposure with exercise such as walking or jogging may help you adapt to the new time even faster.
Beverages with caffeine such as coffee, espresso and soft drinks may help offset daytime sleepiness. Choose caffeinated drinks wisely. Avoid caffeinated beverages after midday since caffeine consumed after that time may make it even more difficult to fall asleep or sleep well.
As a jet lag remedy and sleep aid, melatonin has been widely studied, and it's now a commonly accepted part of effective jet lag treatment. The latest research seems to show that melatonin aids sleep during times when you wouldn't normally be resting, making it beneficial for people with jet lag.
Your body treats melatonin as a darkness signal, so melatonin generally has the opposite effect of bright light.
The time at which you take melatonin is important. If you're trying to reset your body clock to an earlier time, such as after flying east, you should take melatonin at local bedtime nightly until you have become adapted to local time. If you're trying to reset your body clock to a later time, such as after flying west, melatonin should be taken in the morning.
Doses as small as 0.5 milligram seem just as effective as doses of 5 milligrams or higher, although higher doses have been shown by some studies to be more sleep promoting. If you use melatonin, take it 30 minutes before you plan to sleep or ask your doctor about the proper timing.
Avoid alcohol when taking melatonin. Side effects are uncommon but may include dizziness, headaches, daytime sleepiness, loss of appetite, and possibly nausea and disorientation.
Additional possible remedies
Some people use exercise to try to ease the effects of jet lag.
If you want to try an alternative therapy, such as an herbal supplement, be sure to check with your doctor first because some therapies may interact with other medications or cause side effects.