When to Sip and When to Stop: Timing Coffee Consumption to Reduce Jet Lag as You Travel this Holiday Season

9 min read NOV 01, 2022

The holidays afford many of us with the tremendous blessing of spending time with friends and family. And, generally speaking this involves travel. 

In years past, regarding these family bound excursions, most could have easily related to the words of a once popular holiday tune: “over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.” 

Today, however, the scene looks a bit different, with the familiar tune having been replaced with these three words: frequent flyer miles! 

Ah yes, air travel certainly has made holiday visits, even work and other leisurely adventures, much less time consuming. 

But, depending on how far away you are from your destination, this type of travel does have its cons. 

Sure, there’s the occasional issues of lost luggage. And, few people truly enjoy being confined to a semi-tight space with strangers for a few, or several, hours. 

But, if you’re traveling across multiple time zones, you may experience more than a simple, minor inconvenience. 

Jet lag, a condition experienced by many traveling long distances by plane, can wreak havoc on your holiday plans if you’re not prepared. 

Thankfully, coffee can help! 

And, knowing when to refrain and when to indulge in sip after delicious sip of your favorite brew while traveling makes all the difference. 

Jet Lag Disorder

Before we explore how coffee can make or break your holiday air travel plans, let’s first make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to the ins and outs of jet lag. 

Jet lag, also known as jet lag disorder, refers to a problem with sleep that occurs when someone travels across multiple time zones in a short period of time, such as with air travel. 

Normally, our bodies operate on a schedule based upon a 24 hour internal clock referred to as circadian rhythm. 

And, this schedule, or rhythm, aligns with daylight, which is why you (normally) feel awake and alert throughout the day, then sleepy at night after the sun goes down. 

This natural rhythm, synced with the rising and setting of the sun within a 24 hour period, helps you to get quality sleep, keeping you physically and mentally healthy. 

But, this rhythm differs for individuals depending on the time zone where they live, as the sun rises and sets at different times in differing zones. 

This is why, when you travel east or west across multiple time zones, your internal clock can feel a little (or a lot) out of whack. 

While this is a temporary condition, jet lag can really put a damper on your holiday (or any travel) plans, potentially causing the following: 

Constipation or diarrhea - Gastrointestinal problems may arise due to jet lag, causing flare ups in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome, as well as general stomach discomfort, reduced appetite, nausea, diarrhea, even constipation.

Unwell - Individuals experiencing jet lag may feel an overall sense of being ill, unwell, uncomfortable, or uneasy.

Mood changes - Jet lag can exacerbate mental health conditions and mood disorders as well as increasing overall feelings of irritability.

Decreased Focus - Due to sleep disturbances, jet lag can make it difficult for some people to focus, while even affecting memory or the overall ability to think clearly in others.

Reduced Physical Output - While experiencing jet lag, you may notice your physical abilities are diminished, a symptom typically related to the effects of sleep pattern disturbances. 

Fatigue - You may experience an abnormal amount of fatigue during daytime hours with jet lag. 

Difficulty Sleeping - One of the most common symptoms of jet lag is difficulty sleeping. Due to the disturbance in your circadian rhythm, you may find it hard to fall asleep, you may wake early, you may wake frequently throughout the night, or you may even experience all of these symptoms in some cases, which can make it more likely that you’ll experience a greater number of the above symptoms as well. 

Seizures & Paralysis - In rare cases, some folks may experience night time seizures or sleep paralysis due to jet lag. 

Most people experiencing symptoms of jet lag notice these adverse reactions immediately or within a day or so of reaching their destination. 

And, typically symptoms last for one to one and a half days per time zone crossed. 

Many find that traveling east causes greater disturbances than traveling west, and this is thought to be rooted in the notion that your internal clock is more easily delayed than advanced. 

The mystery with jet lag, however, is that this condition affects folks quite differently, with some experiencing multiple symptoms while others experience none. 

Jet lag is thought to be caused from a disruption in how and when your body produces hormones associated with sleep and other crucial body processes. 

And, symptoms usually subside within a few days, with some experiencing them up to a few weeks. 

The occurrence and severity of symptoms associated with jet lag vary depending on your body and how far you’ve traveled. 

Age, stress levels, departure and arrival times, sleep prior to and during travel, and alcohol and caffeine consumption (more on this momentarily) can all affect the occurrence and severity of jet lag as well. 

The good news is, if your air travel across multiple time zones is minimal outside of the holiday season, chances are you’ll recover quickly. 

However, if you do travel long distances frequently, jet lag symptoms can worsen or become chronic, potentially creating a myriad of health concerns linked to poor sleep quality. 

So then, is there a way we can cut jet lag off at the pass, avoiding it altogether, ensuring no holiday time is wasted this season? 

To Coffee, or Not to Coffee - When is the Question!

While Shakespeare expressed via Hamlet “that is the question,” when it comes to coffee and jet lag, when you sip on this tasty pick-me-up can mean the difference between a relaxing holiday getaway and an off-schedule, sleep-deprived, ill-feeling, potentially pleasure-robbed trip. 

Because coffee contains caffeine, a well-known stimulant, it can affect your circadian rhythm. 

Researchers at Colorado University have proven this assumed link, with studies confirming that caffeine consumption can have negative effects on your body’s internal clock. 

When you drink coffee, or anything containing caffeine, your internal rhythm gets delayed due to the effects this stimulant has on your body’s release of melatonin. 

And, this can convince your body that it’s earlier in the day than it truly is. 

While most experience a delay of roughly one hour with caffeine consumption, some can experience nearly 2 hours of delay in their circadian rhythm. 

This is why consuming coffee late in the day can make it difficult for you to fall asleep at night, that 8 pm cup of joe making your body think it’s only 6-7:00. 

But, when it comes to jet lag, this normally negative effect can potentially have positive outcomes. 

Take westbound travelers, for instance. As you travel from east to west, the sun gets lower in the sky, signifying earlier times in the day. This is why it is said that traveling east to west causes you to lose time

Well, consuming coffee as you travel westward, causing that caffeine induced circadian rhythm delay, can help you make up the hours you’ve lost crossing multiple time zones. 

But, this same benefit for westbound travelers can cause issues for those traveling from the west to the east. 

When you’re traveling east, you will technically gain time, meaning your departure time at 5 pm in California may result in an arrival time of 6:30 pm in North Carolina, only an hour and a half later than when you departed, despite four and a half hours of travel time. 

Here, your body is operating under the assumption that it’s now 9:30 at night, but your friends picking you up from the airport assume you’re ready for dinner, with bedtime not set to arrive for several hours. 

Unfortunately, in this instance a cup or two of coffee mid-flight could exacerbate this already sleepy situation, making your body feel like it’s only 4:30 upon arriving, when in reality you left home at 5pm and traveled up in the clouds for several hours. Thus, your risk of jet lag (immediately and in the coming days) could intensify in such a scenario. 

Then, once you arrive at your destination coffee can help you overcome and ward off jet lag with an equally delicate approach to timing. 

If you’re used to having a delicious cup of joe upon waking, make sure you’re enjoying this first cup on local time, with the same being true of your afternoon and evening cups as well. 

So, if you generally cut off the caffeinated cups around 3 pm, for instance, do so while away for the holidays as well, but make sure it’s according to your new time zone. 

And, if your holiday travel schedule appears to be especially tricky, interfering with your coffee enjoyment schedule, there are even apps (such as Timeshifter) that help you appropriately time caffeine consumption while traveling, allowing you to benefit from a jolt when needed without negatively affecting your sleep patterns. 

Jet Lag Prevention

To avoid having your holiday plans hampered by jet lag, seek to time your coffee consumption according to the tips listed here: 

- If traveling west, crossing multiple time zones, as long as you’re not traveling late at night already, have a cup of coffee or two pre or mid-flight to help your body adjust to time lost. 
- If traveling east, avoid consuming coffee before or during your flight as this can exacerbate the effects of jet lag. 
- Once you’ve arrived at your destination, be sure to enjoy your normal coffee routine on the local schedule.

    A few other ways to prevent the possibility of jet lag include: 

    Arriving early to your destination -  If possible, arrive early to give yourself time to recover before the holiday festivities begin.

    Rest prior - Before taking your holiday trip, seek to get quality sleep. 

    Adjust your schedule to accommodate - If you’re able to, you can begin adjusting your home sleep schedule to fit your holiday sleep schedule, making the time zone transition a bit easier on your body. 

    Adjust as you arrive - Once you arrive at your location, be sure to adjust your sleep and mealtime routine, even if it means staying up later than you’re used to, or eating at odd (to you) times. 

    Hydration - Dehydration exacerbates the effects of jet lag, and the cabin air pressure can be dehydrating. Seek to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight to combat this. 

    Plane sleep - If you’re taking a nighttime flight, seek to sleep on the plane, planning accordingly with headphones, a pillow, or eye masks. 

      Medical Disclaimer
      This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Charles Livingston nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.

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