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.
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.
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