The Hardcore Traveler's Guide to Jet Lag
I don’t have to tell you how shitty it feels to arrive at your destination tired, foggy, and unable to sleep for your first several days. Nobody wants to lose time on their vacation, feel unproductive at work, or be sick.
As the co-founder of Under30Experiences, I’m accustomed to long flights. Over the last decade, I’ve almost completely cured my own symptoms of jet lag and I want you to arrive at your destination feeling and looking your best.
In the following guide, I’ve outlined things I can recommend from my own experience. You don’t have to go as crazy as I do, but I want every advantage I can get versus jet lag.
Please consult a doctor, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions, before applying any of the following.
Flight Selection: Ask yourself, “which of these flights will have the least detrimental impact on my body?” For me, this means not taking overnight flights and not waking up too early.
Sleep is our ultimate recovery tool. Waking up earlier than normal usually means less sleep the night before a flight. Don’t put yourself at this disadvantage. I cringe hearing travelers say the pulled an all-nighter or went partying the night before their flight.
Red-eye flights mean crappy sleep quality on the plane. I prefer to book day-time flights and push myself to stay up so I can fall asleep easily when it’s bedtime in my arrival city.
When booking a flight, pay attention to what type of plane you’ll be flying on. If you can fly on the 787 Dreamliner, or Airbus A350 do it. The Dreamliner is pressurized at a lower altitude and has a better filtration system, allowing the air to stay more humid. It’s a quieter plane and a better overall experience.
Airline Selection: The website Skytrax is a lifesaver. Be sure to fly a decent airline and read the reviews about your specific route.
I’m writing this on Japan Airlines in Economy to Tokyo. Before I booked, I read JAL was a five-star airline and that Economy class on JAL is better than most American carriers’ Premium Economy class. I almost spent the money to fly Delta Comfort+ but after seeing photos of the seats I knew I wouldn’t be getting much for the extra money.
Seat Selection: If you can afford lie-flat seats in First and Business Class consider it for long-haul flights if you’ll need to sleep. Your second best option will be Premium Economy with seats that recline, stretch your legs, and have some space between you and your neighbor. Many Asian airlines have impressive Premium Economy options with nice footrests and wide seats.
Check SeatGuru reviews of your exact seat on the plane. Don’t make a rookie move and sit next to the bathroom or in a seat that doesn’t recline. If you want to stay up and move a lot, pick the aisle seat. If you like to sleep and prefer not to be disturbed, pick a window seat. If you sleep on your right side, choose the aisle seat on the right side of the plane. Most pro travelers will bring a neck pillow, earplugs, and a sleep mask.
Fasting: I might not be popular after this section but I’m going to recommend using a lot of self-control. I highly recommend not eating. Yep, that’s right…fasting. Warning: if you are a cranky traveler, this may make you more cranky, but this is only psychological. Consider the challenge an exercise in mindfulness.
Your alternative is eating crappy airline food, boozing, and getting sick.
What to eat / What to avoid: If you are going to eat—be disciplined! Think Whole30 but just for the day… no sugar, no simple carbohydrates, no alcohol, no dairy, etc. I try to eat clean the day before and after travel to aid recovery.
Airplane food is normally carb heavy and filled with low-quality salt. I’m fasting now, but my bag is full of healthy snacks like protein bars, beef jerky, and macadamia nuts. Just be careful not to get fined going through customs with agriculture products.
Healthy meals in airports are easier to find these days. If you are a real freak, plan layovers in airports with healthy restaurants you find on Google.
When to eat: First things first, set your clock to the time zone where you will land and never look back. Avoid reminding yourself, “it’s really 2 am back home.” That’s not going to help. Jet lag can be a psychological war!
Now, here is arguably the most important part of hacking jet lag. Your body’s circadian rhythm is in part regulated by your gut. When you arrive, eat on the local schedule precisely!
If you land at 10pm feeling hungry, go to sleep hungry. This is not your normal dinner time. Wake up and treat yourself to an amazing breakfast at the time you’d normally eat. This is your body’s key signal that it’s time to wake up. Do not skip this step!
How much: Dehydration is your biggest enemy on planes. I drink 2-3x my normal daily consumption when traveling. That aisle seat comes in handy... Frequent bathroom breaks get the blood flowing! Be careful, however, not to pee out all your minerals. Add sea salt to your water to re-mineralize or take a electrolyte solution like LMNT. This is a critical point.
Pre-hydrate: Work on hydrating with really good quality water the day before your trip. No booze! I always try to drink a full liter of water before I go through the TSA checkpoint.
Air squats, calf raises, toe touches and arm circles... let’s go! Embarrassed? Do them in the bathroom. Get your blood moving as often as possible. Walk around to keep the lymph moving.
The lymphatic system is one of your body’s main detoxification pathways. Moving will help you avoid cankels or worse yet, a blood clot. If you end up with cankles or the feet of a pregnant woman, put your legs up the wall when you arrive at your destination. A lymphatic massage or compression pants and socks will also combat this.
Workout: Once you get to your destination, workout at the time your body is accustomed to exercising. Workout hard but don’t overdo it. Break a sweat, get your heart rate up, and then call it quits. A good hotel room workout will suffice…. 15 minutes, as many rounds as possible, lunges, pushups, situps, planks, etc.
Okay, do what you can here… Your objective is to get your body the light it needs to reset your circadian rhythm. The sun tells us to wake up and go to sleep. In the morning, get outside in as little clothing as possible. Don’t stare at the sun, but get sun in your eyes to signal to your body it is daytime. No sunglasses allowed.
Block the Blue Lights: On the plane, be careful to dim the television in the seatback in front of you and put your phone, tablet, and computer in night mode. You can filter the blue lights on your computer with programs like f.lux or Iris.
Blue lights tell your body it’s noon on a summer day and inhibit the production of melatonin--the sleep hormone. Get stylish and wear blue blocking glasses, a hat and hood to shield yourself from the fluorescent lights and hundreds of tv screens around you.
Sleeping pills: I know, I know... it’d be so much easier to take a sleeping pill and be done with this article. Unfortunately, sleeping pills knock you unconscious and don’t give you natural sleep cycles that are so important for recovery. Consuming alcohol to induce sleep also ruins REM sleep.
Sleeping on a plane: Get ready to build your nest. Pillow, blanket, eye mask, earplugs, or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones. Don’t hesitate to be weird. If you’ve read this far you already know I am! Maybe go for the blanket over the head technique or head down on the tray table strategy.
Nap on Arrival: Even if you are exhausted after your flight, fight the urge to nap. It’s much better to stay awake and then sleep once its bedtime. There is a good chance you won’t be able to wake up from your nap and then you’ll never be able to sleep at night!
If you can’t sleep—meditate. Do what you can to relax and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. If you are a nervous flier this will help!
Now we are getting advanced, so consult with your doctor. I’ll tell you my strategy and you can take it or leave it.
My focus is to keep my immune system strong and fight free radical damage. Flying is hard on your body—supplements can mitigate the wear and tear.
- Vitamin C—you are flying in a tube full of foreign germs and recycled air. You can take 500 mg of Vitamin C a few times per day to support your immune system.
- Vitamin D—I know you try to get some sun on your trip, but if it’s winter time you are probably already deficient! Vitamin D is critical to immune function.
- Melatonin--your body naturally produces this hormone to tell your body when to go to sleep. Most supplements have several times what your body naturally produces, but that might be necessary if your body needs a hard reset. I break a 1mg pill into quarters and sleep like a baby. You might need more.
Advanced techniques when you land… try a couple!
- Breathing—any type of yogic breathing is going to help re-oxygenate your body. Flying in pressurized cabins has a similar effect to the one that altitude sickness has on the body. Take lots of deep breaths. Dr. Sachin Panda recommends using a nasal turbine or a breathe-right strip like a football player to allow your body to take in more oxygen.
- Cold therapy—cold baths or cryotherapy have tons of benefits from immune support, to energy boosts, to helping fight lethargy or depression. Cold therapy has similar effects on the body as exercise with none of that pesky running around stuff.
- Infrared saunas—another way to get the hormetic effects of exercise just sitting there. They are excellent for detoxification and sweating it out. When I land in Bangkok I’ll go to the Pañpuri Onsen Spa, for a combination of hot and cold therapy with their mineral-rich Onsen baths.
By now you most likely think I’m a lunatic... But here’s the deal—most of this stuff has a lot of upside and very little downside. Again, check with your doctor, especially if you are going to use supplements or recovery techniques long-term. I don’t do all these things every day.
Do what’s right for your body. Aging, jet lag, and fatigue don’t have just one cause and what works for me may not work for you. It’s your job to explore your own resiliency. Take the best possible care of yourself if you want to recover quickly.
If you asked me my Top 5 Quick & Dirty jet lag tips, I’d say...
1. Get light in your eyes upon arrival, especially in the morning.
2. Eat to tell your body what time it is
3. Avoid alcohol and junk food
4. Stay hydrated
5. Try melatonin.
What are your top jet lag tips? What is your flight routine? Comment below!