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The Pursuit of No Jet Lag

There’s no shortage of advice articles on the web about how to fly somewhere and then miraculously have no jet lag, but that’s a promise that’s hard to achieve. As a guy who has been traveling frequently since the early 1990s, I can say from experience that this pesky malady is something that’s tough to stave off completely.

jet lag from a long flight

Earlier this year I flew down to Argentina and back from North America and that was an ordeal, but at least the time zones were similar. In November I’m flying from Mexico City to Bangkok though, with two stops on the way, which will rock my body hard I’m sure. I leave on the 1oth and arrive on the 12th. 

So I will have some catch-up time. Avoiding jet lag altogether is like trying to drink five shots of whisky and still remain sober. If you fly halfway around the world, it’s going to take your body some time to recover. It’s just a matter of how serious the symptoms are for you.

The idea is to minimize jet lag as much as possible and give your body a chance to get into the local rhythm as soon as possible. Even if you do everything right, people’s bodies react differently. I may be feeling 100% normal the next day, while you may be dragging for three days.

So just remember when you’re looking at flights to Thailand or Japan, or you’re getting ready to book hotels where you’re landing, that you’re going to need to build in some recovery time after arrival. The first couple of nights there, you probably don’t want to stuff yourself into a Japanese capsule bed or sleep in a crappy Khao San Road guesthouse with lots of noise coming through paper-thin walls. 

Side note: I once got a press trip invite for a three-night trip to Japan, coming from the eastern United States. Three nights! My e-mail reply asked them if this was a typo or were they just out of their mind? The trip would have involved spending 18+ hours in economy class of a plane, running around for three days while in a daze, then getting back into that economy seat for a whole day to go home. Nightmare!

The Symptoms of Jet Lag

adjusting to local time

The phrase is called jet lag because your internal clock is still lagging behind in its old time zone. I once read a fiction book that equated it to your soul moving across the ocean an hour at a time while your body was in the new location, the soul trying to catch up in normal human movement time. Sometimes it feels a bit like that, as if part of you is still missing.

I once took a family vacation in Southeast Asia for three weeks, flying all the way from Florida to Bangkok and then returning from Vietnam. This kind of trip throws your body for a major loop: when it’s noon at home, it’s bedtime there. You’re literally a day ahead of where you left from on the way.

Then you go back in time when returning. I once arrived in New York City from Seoul about the same time and date as when I’d left. That’ll really mess with your head and your body. Your watch is telling you one thing, but your internal body clock is telling you something else. Until you get on board with local time, you’re going to feel groggy, disoriented, distracted, and just a little “off.” You might have trouble keeping your eyes open in the middle of the day then be wide awake when it’s time for bed.

The shorter the time difference, the faster you’ll often recover. New York to Los Angeles is not nearly as bad as New York to Istanbul. If your destination is on the other side of a spinning globe, then your body is going to be quite confused. 

Jet Lag Myths

I’ve tried just about every remedy for jet lag there is over the years except a sleeping pill and my wife has tried that one. So I’ve got a pretty good body of evidence for what has worked for our bodies at least. Here are a few myths to dispel.

There’s a “cure” for jet lag

This is the big one. You can alleviate the symptoms and speed up the recovery time, but the only real cure is time. Your body needs to get its circadian rhythms back in sync, which means your body clock needs to reset. This takes time and a readjusted sleep pattern.

Drinking to excess or taking a sleeping pill will do it

These things can help you sleep on the plane, which is a good thing in the long run, but being immobile on a plane for 6 hours straight has its own health risks. Plus going through immigration, customs, and baggage claim drunk or sedated in your arrival country is not generally a good idea. With excess alcohol, you also have a dehydration issue since the air on planes is about as humid as the Sahara. 

Go first class and you’ll be fine

True, you’ll get a better sleep on that lie-flat bed some airlines provide if you pay the big bucks or upgrade with points/status, but your body clock will be just as far off as those who suffered through (and paid less in) economy class. You’ll just be much better rested so it shouldn’t take days to get back on track like the person who didn’t sleep at all while crossing an ocean. You don’t have as much catching up to do.

This is the main reason companies and wealthy business owners don’t hesitate to pay thousands of dollars to sit in the front of the plane. They may still feel a bit off, but they’re not sleep-deprived during their meetings and negotiations on the other end. 

A radical diet change will reset your body clock 

Surf through sites with advice on jet lag and you’ll find plenty of diet recommendations that if followed exactly, will supposedly magically transform your experience. If it works for you to load up on meat or to fast for days, great, but scientists have had a tough time proving any repeatable effectiveness for any of these methods. Plus these diets often involve five days of remedy to alleviate two days of symptoms. 

Jet Lag Remedies That Have Worked for Me

The key thing to remember about jet lag is the lag part: the best remedy is to get onto local time as soon as possible. In practical terms, that means it is best not to arrive at 6:00 a.m. in Bangkok like I did on that family trip and then have to try to stay awake 15 hours or more until bedtime.

Ideally you want sun on your face when it’s daytime locally and you want to sleep in a very dark place when it’s night locally. Take a power nap in there somewhere if you can barely stand up, but try to get onto local time. We once rented a hotel in the arrival city for two nights in Fiji with the sole goal of getting on local time. We hung out by the pool when it was sunny and went to bed (well-fed) as soon as it was dark. 

rest up after a flight

As for helpers, I’ve had pretty good luck taking Melatonin for the first two nights at bedtime after arrival. This is a natural substance in your body that is released at bedtime normally, so you’re basically inserting a signal to your body that “Now it’s time to go to sleep. The pill form is produced with a synthetic hormone, which worries some people. The side effects are minimal though: see more from the Mayo Clinic here.

The scientific research seems to agree that it works better going east (forward in time) than it does going west (backward in time) but I’ve used it anytime I’m going really far. It’s cheap, easy to find, and effective for some people and is approved in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. It comes in a lot of different strengths, from 3 mg to 12 or more, but most articles on using it for jet lag recommend 3 or 5 mg. 

No Jet Lag pills from Miers Lab are something else I’ve used. They are not a hormone and are homeopathic. They only have five ingredients. I can’t really promise that these work because I can’t really prove it’s not a placebo effect, but I have used them on multiple trips as a “just in case” option for extra help. When you’re traveling, both there and back you pop these every couple of hours on the way as the directions prescribe.

no jet lag pills Mier Labs

Plenty of people swear by them and I consider it cheap jet lag insurance. You can pick up a pack of them for $15 on Amazon that will take care of a few long-haul flights. There are some competing products claiming to do the same thing, but I haven’t used those. I’m much more skeptical about the ones called Flight Armour because they promise, “Feel like you never flew” and they’re three times more expensive. They seem to just be fancy vitamins with probiotics, so you could probably accomplish that with a proper diet and regular multivitamins. 

In the Plane and On the Ground

I’m firmly on the side of getting any help I can for sleeping on the plane, so I’ll gladly take the free glasses of wine they’re passing out or have a cocktail or two. Others disagree strongly with this because of the dehydration factor, but for me a couple of drinks, a good eye mask, and my fall-asleep music puts me out for at least a few hours in transit, sometimes a good six hours.

Then once I arrive, I try hard to get on the local schedule and I’ll get to bed as soon as I can after it gets dark. During the day, I try to do things outside in the sunlight so my brain is getting the message that it’s daytime, the hours I’m meant to be awake and functioning.

So what’s the key thing to keep in mind? That there’s no real “one size fits all” solution. I sleep like a log once I’m down and can count on one hand the times I’ve been up in the middle of the night for more than an hour. For my wife, however, she has enough trouble sleeping when things are perfect (complete with eye mask and ear plugs in a dark room on a great bed), so jet lag is never going to have a real cure for her. She’ll pop the sleeping pill in a heartbeat.

Try different things and analyze what you can really live with. Some people have no problem forgoing alcohol for three or four days and will give the advice they give for every other medical issue it seems: “drink more water.” (Even though that means your sleep will get interrupted because you have to keep going to the bathroom.) Others will tell you to do exactly what you do at home, just adjusting your watch and joining the locals at the pub.

Some methods advise you with amazing specifics on what to eat for days, even though some people can’t eat those specific foods ever. Try different approaches until you find a solution that works, then keep doing more of that.

Anything you’ve tried that has worked like a charm for no jet lag—or at least making it just a minor nuisance?

Matt

Wednesday 19th of October 2022

before long flights, 10+ hours, I like to stay up the night before so I will easily sleep on the plane. The last thing you wanna do is get on a long flight full of energy! I also find jet lag seems to be minimal when I'm feeling very fit.

Hank Ryan

Wednesday 19th of October 2022

Hi Tim,

Thanks for this. We fly to BKK from AMS in a few weeks and while I look forward to finally returning to SE Asia after 2 years, everything you wrote rings true.

Our only remedy is to make our trips long enough so the jet lag on both ends is just the cost of doing business.

I gave edibles a try on my last trip from the US to Europe. The problem was, while the effect was good and helped me relax, by the time I boarded, the effects wore off.

This trip I'll try melatonin since that substance can go through security so I don't waste the chance to doze off by the time boarding begins.

Safe travels,

Hank

Tim Leffel

Wednesday 19th of October 2022

Good point--if you stay a long time, you're not dealing with it again less than a week later!