How to Adjust to a New Time Zone

Steer clear of jet lag with these easy tips

Traveling to a different time zone can be exciting—but the time change can take some getting used to. Depending on how far you travel, it may be necessary to take specific steps to adapt to a new time zone and avoid the symptoms of jet lag, which can make your journey less enjoyable.

Jet lag can cause you to feel ill as well as tired, and it can ruin a trip. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for time zone transitions.

This article explains the signs of jet lag and strategies to help you avoid it or manage the symptoms.

Senior couple sleeping in an airplane
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Symptoms of Jet Lag

The most common symptoms of jet lag include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Slowing down of mental and physical abilities
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle soreness
  • Cramps

Being unable to move around during a long flight, dehydration, and disrupted eating schedules can contribute to these problems.

Light and Jet Lag

Light, whether from the sun or a lamp, has a strong effect on the body's circadian rhythms. That's one of the factors determining when you're alert and awake and when you're tired and need to sleep.

When you travel to another time zone, there's a dramatic shift in your exposure to light and a misalignment of your body’s sense of day and night. Until the circadian rhythm is reset, jet lag symptoms persist.

The sudden disruption of your circadian rhythms that occurs with jet lag can be distressing, especially the further you travel. If you fly from, say, the east coast of the United States to the west coast, you'll be crossing only a few time zones, and adjusting will be relatively easy. But if you cross oceans and continents it will be more challenging.

In general, it can take one day per time zone changed for circadian rhythms and sleep to get in sync. 

How quickly you switch time zones matters as well. Since driving or traveling by bus or even train takes longer than flying, your body has an opportunity to adjust to time zone changes gradually. For example, if it takes 10 hours to pass through a time zone while driving, then you essentially have a half-day to accommodate for the shift.

Finally, the direction of travel impacts circadian rhythms. You may have heard a frequent traveler say, "East is a beast, west is best." What he means is that traveling in a westward direction is often easier to tolerate because it is easier to shift the circadian rhythm to a later time. To think about it another way, consider how easy it is to stay up a few hours later in the night and how challenging it can be to wake up that much earlier in the morning.

Adjusting to a New Time Zone

If you're planning travel that will land you in a different time zone, severe jet lag isn't inevitable. There are ways to help you prepare your body for the change so that you can enjoy your trip with as little disruption to your sleep as possible.

Plan Ahead

Before your trip, figure out how much you'll need to shift your sleep and wake times to be in sync after you arrive. Allowing enough time to do it gradually, begin to go to bed earlier and get up earlier, or vice-versa depending on the direction you'll be traveling in, to get your body used to the new time zone before you have to live in it.

Make Yourself Stay Awake 

Delaying sleep generates a very robust sleep drive and may counteract some of the issues related to a misaligned circadian rhythm. Much like pulling an all-nighter, your desire for sleep will be exceptionally strong if you stay awake for a prolonged period, no matter what time zone you're in.

To reset yourself, try to stay awake on the plane and when you arrive. Once you're settled in, fight the urge to take a nap, and try to stay awake until your normal bedtime based on local time.

See the Light

The most important factor in resetting your body clock is light. If you can, get 15 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight as soon as you wake up. Go for a walk, eat breakfast outside, or just sit in the sun and read.

Keeping a regular bedtime and wake time with morning light exposure will help a great deal.

Deflect Drowsiness

When dealing with jet-lag-related daytime sleepiness, the same go-to remedies you use at home can help:

  • Drink a cup of coffee or tea, but don't overdo your caffeine intake.
  • Take a short nap when needed, sleeping for 20 minutes or less; longer naps may make you feel groggier when you wake up.
  • Consider taking melatonin. A 5 mg dose can realign your circadian rhythm to the new time zone. Take it in the morning to set your internal clock to a later time and in the evening to set it to an earlier time.
  • Don't drive when you're drowsy.

Returning Home

As your trip comes to an end, ease yourself into the change to come by gradually adjusting your bedtime and wake time in 30- to 60-minute increments towards the new clock setting. If this isn't possible, follow the same advice above to adjust to the new time zone at home.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ambesh P, Shetty V, Ambesh S, Gupta SS, Kamholz S, Wolf L. Jet lag: Heuristics and therapeuticsJ Family Med Prim Care. 2018;7(3):507-510. doi:10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_220_17

  2. Fowler PM, Knez W, Crowcroft S, et al. Greater effect of east versus west travel on jet lag, sleep, and team sport performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2017;49(12):2548-2561. doi:10.1249/mss.0000000000001374

Additional Reading

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.