It’s happened to all of us who’ve traveled across time zones.  Nausea, sleeplessness, drowsiness, achiness, and general brain-fog that turns a high IQ individual into Homer Simpson.  This dragging feeling can range from mildly uncomfortable to completely debilitating.  The farther you travel, the worse it gets.  If you’re reading this blog entry, the chances are you’ve been struck by this ultimate indignity inflicted on us by the Travel Gods.

I’ve read about all the special practices that I could find on the Internet.  I’ve talked to other passengers on Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Pacific flights, I’ve asked doctors, physical therapists, and heck – I’ve even talked to Chinese acupuncture and traditional medicine practitioners.   I’ve tried most of what was suggested, and if it didn’t make me sick, loopy, or just didn’t flat-out work, I incorporated it into my own routine, which changes depending on where I’m going.   The nice thing is I now have the jet lag effects down to a minimum, and I can function much better than before.  This blog will refer only to non-medicinal practices.   Discussions on sedatives is a whole ‘nother issue!  Read about that here.

Short-haul Travel (1-4 hours of time change):

  • If you’re traveling east, get up early – very early.   Try to wake up at the same time you would if you were already at your destination.  This way you are tired when you need to go to bed  once you arrive.
  • If you’re traveling west, try to take a later flight, and get up a bit later than normal.  It does help.
  • Get your stomach-clock on the new time zone immediately.  Eat breakfast and lunch on the destination’s time zone while you travel.  I’m not hungry at 4:30am, but I always eat something light while in the car on the way to the airport.  It really helps.
  • Set your watch to the new time zone as soon as the airplane takes off.  This gets your mind on the new time, and reminds you when to eat the lunch you brought on the plane with you.
  • Do NOT overdo the caffeine.  Take only as much as you are used to – a cup of coffee or tea in the morning.  If you load up on Coke or Diet Coke, you will only have problems falling asleep that night and your jet lag will be much worse.
  • Go to bed that night at the time you usually fall asleep, but in your destination time zone.  If you’re traveling west, stay awake and DO NOT NAP!  If you do, you’re hosed, and might as well admit defeat right there.   Follow your normal routine when going to bed, but try to keep noise down as much as possible.  Turning the TV on will just keep you awake, and really tick off your hotel neighbors.  A book or magazine will make you fall asleep faster.

Long-haul Travel (5+ hours of time change):

  • If you are  landing in the late-afternoon or evening, the most important piece of advice I can give is DO NOT SLEEP if you can, and if you have to, don’t sleep more than 2-3 hours on the flight.   I’ve learned through bitter experience that it increases that hit-by-a-truck feeling the next day, and jet lag effects last longer than if you stayed awake.  I bring books, videos, crossword puzzles and my ipod to keep me awake on long, long flights and layovers.  You want to be really tired when you land so you can get some sleep that night.
  • If you are landing in the morning (any time before noon), then get as much sleep as you can on the flight so you can stay up all day without napping.   At this point, caffeine is a good friend, and go ahead with the coffee, tea, and soda until about 3pm.  DO NOT imbibe any caffeine past 3pm in your destination time zone.  If you do, you will not sleep well that night.
  • Set your watch to your destination time zone as soon as you take off in the airplane.  This helps you wrap your head around the time change before you arrive.   If you have multiple destinations, I’ve found it helps to reset it on each flight.  It may sound like a small point, but I firmly believe that if you keep thinking “it’s _o’clock at home” your body will not accept the new time as readily.
  • Drink a lot of non-alcoholic fluids on the flight.  Keep hydrated.   Yes, it does mean more trips to the loo on the airplane, but as long as it’s not too turbulent, it also gives you an excuse to get up and get moving at times.  Dehydration will increase the severity of your jet lag.
  • Get up and do some stretches when turbulence permits.   Sitting in one position too long is not only uncomfortable, it can be detrimental to your health.
  • Go to sleep at an appropriate time your first night, and do not eat a meal just before retiring.  Stay away from that room-service menu!   If you eat a meal, you will not sleep well, and will be very muzzy the next morning.   If you are arriving very late, I usually bring some protein bars to nibble on the train or car to the hotel.
  • And this from reader Jaimie Goulding – “Having spent considerable time in the air myself “commuting” between West Coast USA and Asia/Pacific global region, I have 1 more suggestion to offer. Prolonged exposure to the pressurized cabin may be attributed to the flu-like symptoms some of us suffer (mild hypobaric hypoxia) upon landing, and I’ve found that a good long hot water soak in a deep hot tub or jacuzzi immediately relieves some of the edema, helps “rebalance” your cells and will certainly help you sleep better. Try to do the soak as soon after you land as possible. ”  –  Thank you, Jaimie!  This is an excellent addition.

And the MOST important piece of advice:

  • Get a massage as soon as you can after arriving, and definitely within the first 2 days.   If you land in the morning and have to work or sight-see the first day, then try to have a massage before sleeping that night.  This is the single most effective piece of advice I was ever given.   A massage will  decrease jet lag in a very simple way.  Tight muscles  prevent sleep, and wake you up at 4am.  Water retention and mild edema is uncomfortable.  Racy-brain and stress will increase the body’s reaction to the time change.  All of this is corrected by a 60 or 90 minute session with a good therapist.  Many good hotels in Asia offer special massages to reduce jet lag, and they WORK.   If they don’t have a Jet-Lag Special, then choose whatever service is most comfortable for you.

I have the routine set now so I can land after traveling for 23 hours, have a full day of productive meetings, a massage, a light dinner and a glass of wine, and then sleep for 8 or 9 hours and feel great the next day.  It’s a minor victory over the Travel Gods, but I’ll take it!

If you have a favorite practice that I have not addressed, please post it in a comment, or send me an email.  I will do a follow-up after I hear from some of my readers.

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