I fly a lot; a ridiculous amount for someone who isn’t a business traveler. In fact, last year, I made 64 separate flights, although one of them was a hot air balloon and another, a helicopter. But the point is that living in the Philippines in Asia, I take advantage of the cheap flights on CebuPacific, Philippine Airlines, and others to hop out to one of the 7,500 islands every chance I get.
I also bounce on over to Thailand twice a year or so to visit Scotty the Body and take part in the Judd Reid Fight Camp, Cambodia to visit one of my favorite countries in the world and see the kids at the Children’s Improvement Organization orphanage, and more. I also make it back home to the U.S. once a year, an epically long journey that takes either 12-hours+ on a plane to California or, like I did this last time, 16 hours and 40 minutes straight from New York to Manila.
And you know what?
It kicks my ass every time.
Not only are travel days exhausting, the germ-laden dry recirculated air on the planes always makes me sick, but the jet lag is an absolute killer. Once I land, I’m a complete and total mess for a week or more form the time change.
Of course, it’s no insignificant alteration to my schedule, like when I fly to Thailand and it’s only one hour different, or even going from New York to Europe, for instance, where the 5-hour time difference only requires you to stay up particularly late but then sleep late the next day.
Believe it or not, it’s also way worse when you’re going West to East like Asia to New York.
No, coming and going from Asia, your schedule is 100% flipped (we’re 13 hours ahead of New York right now) so night is day and day, night. In a perfect world, I’d be able to get in, plop down my bags, take a hot shower, and go right to sleep for 8 hours, waking up refreshed and adjusting very quickly. Some people can do that.
But my sleep pattern is messed up to begin with, and I end up in some sort of sub-human zombie raccoon-eyed state, not really sleeping for a week but taking a series of 1-4 hour naps at random times of the day or night.
I find myself wide away at 3 am (like I just woke up from an afternoon nap) or early evening (my normal wake up time) but dragging so bad all day that I can barely keep my red and puffy eyes open. For most people, it’s not quite this bad, but I have three things going against me: I’m old as dirt, I’m a terrible sleeper to begin with, and I have to work approximately 70 hours a week, so there’s no lounging by the pool, partying all night, and slowly and gracefully adjusting to the time change for me.
But the good news is that, although I haven’t figured out the magic cure for jet lag and adjusting to drastic time changes, I have figured out some tips and hacks that make the process imminently easier.
First off, what IS jetlag? Just a lack of sleep? A figment of our imaginations?
Actually, it’s a real medical condition called desynchronosis where your circadian rhythm(your body’s internal clock and sense of night/day or sleep/waking, etc.) is disrupted.
It’s also no joke or mere inconvenience, as jetlag – or desynchronosis– can contribute to everything from weight gain to high blood pressure and heart problems to triggering bipolar disorder. (Which would explain a lot since I probably have all of those.)
So, the best way to combat jet lag is to do things that will give your body new cues as to what the proper schedule should be, resetting your circadian rhythmbased on the new schedule.
There are two main ways to do just that and they have to do with sleep and sunlight.
Light in the light (or shut it out)
Resetting our circadian rhythms, which are associated with the solar day, means that we have to adjust our internal clock to know that sunlight means being awake and nighttime means sleep again. So, when you arrive and want to stay up (day), get outside, soak in the sun, go to a beach or local park, and open up all of the blinds in your hotel room – let the sun in. At night, do the opposite and make sure it’s plenty dark.
A lot of times, jetlag feels like you’ve been up all night after a bender with red eyes and dry, pale skin to show for it. So, I love the feeling of a hot washcloth against the face. You can even ask the flight attendant to bring you an extra.
Sometimes, you’re just going to be too exhausted and need to collapse into a nap. However, try to take a quick 30-minute snooze, not a two or three-hour slumber where your body will be confused into thinking it’s night time again. Set your alarm.
Get yo ass moving
Get up, get out, and do some vigorous physical activity. A run, long walk, swimming laps in the hotel pool, or hitting the gym will all get your blood pumping and help you feel much better, aside from adjusting to jet lag. Exercise is especially invigorating and helpful after a long flight.
Don’t fly east, young man
Whenever I fly east back to the states from Asia, adjusting to the jet lag is WAY worse than flying the other direction. I mean like hideously worse. There’s actually a good explanation for that, as trying to reset your Circadian Rhythm backward – i.e. to an earlier time – is far more difficult than setting it forward. When you fly east to west, however, you can basically just stay up all night and your sleep pattern will adjust a little more naturally accordingly.
Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies naturally produce, in part as a way for our brains to know that it’s time to start relaxing and go to sleep soon. In some countries, you can buy Melatonin supplements over the counter and take a small dose – like three to five milligrams – before you go to bed, which should help you snooze a little better. However, any positive effects of Melatonin will be disrupted by bright light, so you’ll still have to turn off the TV and shut off your phone.
Reduce screen time
Unnatural light from our smartphones, tablets, computer screens, and televisions is really doing a number on the modern human, making it harder than ever to fall asleep, sleep soundly, and feel rested. This is exacerbated when you’re trying to adjust to jet lag, of course, so try to turn off all screens and white light devices at least an hour before bedtime.
Inevitably, you’re exhausted and feel gross when you first arrive from a long fight or epic travel day, and all you want to do is shower, eat, and sleep. However, that works against you when you arrive in the morning or midday since that’s the time you want to be active and get out sightseeing to start combatting jet lag. So, try to book a flight where you’ll arrive late at night (or just the evening), so you CAN shower, eat, and hit the bed immediately, your fatigue carrying you through the night and helping you wake up ready to go.
Time your meals
Another way your body takes cues to what time it is and what it should be doing is through your eating schedule. So, if you can, avoid huge heavy, greasy, rich, fried, and unhealthy meals during the flight and when you first land. (Or, avoid them always!) Instead, try snacking on healthy and more natural or unprocessed meals. When you land, eat a big meal if you’d like but make sure it’s clean and easy to digest. This isn’t just a suggestion, as research by a noted chronobiologist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois found this method to significantly reduce the effects of jetlag.
Take a cold shower or warm bath
It may seem like a simple tactic, but when you find yourself so tired that you can’t keep your eyes open, but it’s still the middle of the day, take a shockingly cold shower – it will trigger hormones that tell you it’s morning or time to be active. Conversely, take a long hot shower or hot bath at night before sleeping, which will help lull you to sleep.
One of the most significant reasons why flying long distances makes you feel like crap is the fact that the air on planes is really bad, to put it bluntly. In fact, the air is about six times more arid than the driest natural environment on earth and, since it’s recirculated, you’re getting everyone else’s germs to breathe over and over. I know, right? Additionally, jet lag is made worse by being dehydrated. So, drink a ton of water before you fly, while you fly, and after you land. Try to avoid beverages with a lot of sugar or salt, and definitely take it easy on alcohol during the flight and caffeine if you’re trying to adjust to the new time zone (except in the morning when you need to wake up!)