How to Avoid Jet Lag

Unnatural Acts: a Primal Approach to Jet Lag

One of the coolest things about being a 21st century “evolved” human is that we can travel to just about anywhere on this planet within a very short period of time and experience different cultures. All but our most recent relatives lived their entire lives never straying more than a hundred miles from their birthplace, yet we routinely hop on a jet, fly across the country or halfway around the world for a few days of travel and then return to our caves just as easily as playing a round of golf (or in my case, even more easily than golfing).

Of course jet travel is not without its obvious potential health issues. The recycled air, that sneezer sitting next to you on the plane, the water in third-world countries, those unrecognizable new foods…you know the drill. Any one of those can ruin a trip, but if your immune system is working as it should, even all that can be insignificant.

No, the biggest real health issue with travel is jet lag. It’s an “unnatural act” and shouldn’t be dismissed as merely a nuisance. The truth is that changing three, four or nine times zones in as little as half a day can wreak havoc on all your delicate internal “wiring” and hormonal systems and can leave you exhausted or sick for much of your trip. At the very least it can take the fun out of travel. I would even argue that regular intercontinental travel can be one of the most stressful events we can willingly endure unless we take measures to mitigate the damage it can cause. And there’s a good reason jet lag is so annoying: in the evolution of our Primal DNA blueprint, it was never remotely contemplated that we would travel far enough to disrupt those critical circadian rhythms that keep us alert during the day and sleepy at night. No new light stimulus during our evolution meant no adaptation for today’s traveler.

For billions of years, nothing has been more constant than the daily rising and setting of the sun. It made perfect sense that the evolution of almost all life forms would be somehow “anchored” to a daily rhythm set by earth’s only dependable light source. This circadian rhythm (from Latin “circa” meaning around and “dies” meaning days) governs our sleeping and eating patterns as well as the precise timing of certain important hormone secretions, brain wave patterns and cellular repair and regeneration based on a 24-hour cycle. When we interfere with our circadian rhythm by traveling (or staying out late every night or working the graveyard shift) we also disrupt some of those very processes we depend upon to stay healthy, happy, productive and focused. We can “reset” our internal clock occasionally, but unless we know a few secret shortcuts, it normally takes days or weeks to adjust and that simply won’t work when we have places to go and people to see. And that brings us to the matter of how best to overcome jet lag.

The rule of thumb used to be that it took your body one day to adjust for each hour of time zone change, which meant that if you went to Europe from California for a week, you could look forward to being miserable for most of it. I certainly experienced that on my first trip to Europe in my early 20’s. I vowed never to have my trip ruined again and started researching and experimenting. During my years as an athlete and then later as a coach and sports administrator, I traveled around the globe six to ten times a year and often for stays of only a few days. I had no choice but to find a way to avoid jet lag if I wanted to be at peak performance for a meeting or a race.

Here’s what I learned:

The cardinal rule of avoiding jet lag (once you have arrived at your destination) is to go to bed only when it’s the normal bedtime at your arrival destination and to awaken when it’s normally time to get up at your arrival destination. The biggest mistake people make is to take a nap upon arrival to take the “edge” off. Never nap during the day at your travel destination no matter how short a nap you think you can take. Keep yourself busy and do whatever it takes to stay awake until it is bedtime in your destination. Take a shower or go for a walk, and avoid heavy meals or alcohol. If you are just dead tired, then at least try to stay awake until 7:30 or 8 PM.

The #2 rule is to use the supplement melatonin to help you reset your internal clock and to allow you to fall asleep more easily. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland to begin the sleep process. It releases every twenty-four hours when you are in your normal routine at home. While I am generally against interfering with natural hormonal systems, the “unnatural act” of crossing time zones requires an equally unnatural act of supplementing the hormone melatonin to reset your internal clock. Take 3-6mg (I use 5mg) of melatonin one hour before you plan to fall asleep. I recommend using it each of the first two nights, then taking a half-dose the third night and taking none the remainder of the stay.

In order to be able to employ rule #1, it’s important to manage your sleep during the flight as well. On flights lasting longer than five hours, try to get some sleep during the trip. When traveling east, I always look for flights that leave late in the day. I treat those long flights as a short night and a short day, since the flight will eliminate several time zones en route. The fact that I might only get a few hours sleep during the flight is mitigated by the other fact that I won’t have much daylight left when I arrive, so I’ll be reasonably tired when nighttime rolls around.

I treat long flights going west as a very long day (or a very long night, depending on when I leave). If it’s a long day flight, I take enough of a nap to take the edge off and to be able to stay awake until bedtime at my destination. If it’s a night flight going west, I sleep as much as I can, knowing I will likely have a full day at my destination. Of course, it’s also advisable to be fully caught-up on your sleep at home the days prior to your departure.

Other tips:

Don’t use sleeping pills to sleep on the plane. They will not provide quality sleep and can interfere with your adjustment upon arrival. Get one of those neck pillows you see in the airport stores. They help cradle your head while you sleep and prevent sore necks. Drink lots of water on the plane and try to avoid alcohol. Walk around a little when you’re not sleeping or if you can’t sleep and stretch a little in the galley area.

I depend on quality sleep as a major part of my health program. Missing a few hours here or there during a flight isn’t a big deal as long as I know I will be back on track when I hit those fresh linens at my destination. With strict attention to detail and a knowledge of how the body reacts to changes in time zones, I never get jet lag anymore…and I wish the same for you.

Further Reading:

Why Intermittent Fasting May Be Healthy

Shoes: Who Needs ‘Em?

10 Forgotten Instant Stress Relief Tips

10 Ways to Boost Your Serotonin

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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23 thoughts on “How to Avoid Jet Lag”

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  1. Great Tips Mark!
    I Wish I’d Of Known All This Years Ago.
    Flying Definitely Always Gave Me Jet Lag.
    I’ll Pass This On To My Brother, They Fly
    To Europe Often For 2 Weeks, They Always
    Come Back Feeling Off Key And Always Took
    Them A Very Long Time To Feel Back Normal.
    When They’d Return Home From Europe The
    Only Thing They Wanted To Do Is Sleep
    All Day And Night. Thanks For Passing This On!

  2. Interesting. Yes, great tips. My husband wants me to go to Europe with him. But, I just know that the time change will make me miserable. The longest flights I’ve been on is about 5 1/2 hours. I am so stir crazy, I can’t sit that long. I’d gladly hand out the food/drinks if I can stand.

  3. I don’t know how many overseas flights you’ve taken, but I used to shuttle twice a year between Asia and the midwestern US, a 14-hour flight. The Asia-US flights left in the morning and arrived in the morning. It is difficult to get anything more than a few catnaps in an economy class crowded with 400 people. And did I mention those adoptee infants crying in the front row? I HAD to take a nap when I got to my host’s house. Returning back to Asia was much easier – the flight left in the afternnon and arrived in the evening – perfect! And no wailing babies either.

    If you ever do fly to Asia, take a Japanese carrier or a Korean carrier. The meals served are comprised of traditional dishes that are delicious and healthy. Avoid Air China, the national carrier of the PRC unless you don’t mind brownbagging your meals to avoid feeling poisoned.

  4. I travel quit a bit and a fair amount to Europe, and you are right on with all the tips. Another one that helps me a lot especially going to Europe, is taking as many walks outside in the sun during the first day as I can to help me reset my internal clock, and after the first nights sleep I’m usually in the right time zone.

    Isn’t there a connection to sun exposure, melatonin production, and your circadian rhythm?

  5. I agree with your tips…especially the one about not taking sleeping pills. That just makes jet lag worse as you become groggy upon arrival, and it just whacks out your schedule. I also like to listen to deep relaxing meditations, both before the flight and afterwards.

  6. Great tips. But let’s be honest, has anyone ever (EVER) used one of those neck pillows successfully? Somebody break my skepticism, because to me they only achieve two things:
    1) They make you look ridiculous.
    2) They add a bulky, large mass to your luggage.

  7. I used a neck pillow for a couple trips to Europe. Filled it with lavender. It was great! I don’t care if I look like a dork. 😉

  8. Brian,

    Good point about the sunlight. There are some studies that show that daylight (sun) in the new location can help reset everything.

  9. I’ve traveled to Europe from the eastern time zone twice recently and didn’t have jet lag in either direction. The day of the east-bound flight, I didn’t eat anything after what would be considered ‘evening’ in my destination. I also had no caffeine (not very primal, I know) after 2 p.m. my destination time. On the plane, I simulated sleep with an eye cover and little movement. Got up to stretch a little and brought an empty water bottle through security and filled it on the plane to drink throughout the flight. I ate breakfast on the plane (roasted nuts, hard-boiled eggs & dried fruit that I packed) and had tea upon arrival. Spent as much time in the sunshine as possible the following day and it worked like a charm. Same system worked going west too, except having to get up early for a morning flight and not having only water until breakfast time in my destination gave me a slight headache, but it was worth not having the jet lag. Just considered it intermittent fasting!

  10. Great article! I’m heading East in a couple of weeks and will definitely be using some of these tips!

    Staying up until it’s a proper time for bedtime in the new time zone has worked well for me in the past. I think it’s especially effective if you can get out and get some fresh air and light exercise before going to sleep.

  11. Hello my family and I are missionaries in the Philippines and over the last 7 years have logged 1000’s and 1000’s of air miles. Jet lag is a combination of several factors – artificial air, pressurized cabins, multiple time zones. Most of the jet lag symptoms are very close to dehydration. Groggy, lack of focus, lack of energy. Here is what we have learned and what we do – drink 8-10 ozs of water every hour we are in flight, nothing else – especially stay away from carbonated drinks. When we arrive we stay awake until bedtime in that time zone and last we try to spend 5 min for every hour in the flight in a hot shower, bath before going to bed (as hot as we can stand the water). The results have always been the same – zero jet lag, stiffness, lack of energy. The extra water intakes combats the dehydration of the artificial air and pressurized cabin. The hot shower takes the tension out of the muscles from a long flight and promotes blood flow to cramped muscles.