A Survival Guide to Long-Distance Travel
I’ve traveled a lot in the past few years. And it tires me—the airport, the plane, the jet lag. So I’ve been trying out various techniques to make the whole experience better.
The gist of it is that traveling wreaks havoc on our bodies.
For example, the plane cabin is extremely dry (10 times drier than ideal), exposed to continuous radiation (from the close proximity of jet engines), and a very confined space limiting movement for long periods (hence: limited flow of the lymphatic system a.k.a waste system)
Jet lag is a very (physiologically) disorienting phenomenon. Our bodies and its many systems, such as the hormone production schedule, follow the circadian rhythm. They are synchronized to the cycle of the day. A rapid shift in that cycle (several hours forward or back) is something our bodies were not designed to do, and hence it is quite stressful.
Below is a summary of the best tips I've used to manage these stressors.
This routine has made my traveling a lot less painful, especially for long haul and multi-hop flights. I arrive less fatigued and jet lag is significantly reduced.
1. Before Traveling
Gradually shift your sleep to match your destination
A few days before traveling start shifting your sleep to get closer to your destination schedule.
For example, if you’re flying West, start sleeping later and waking up later (e.g., for a few days prior to traveling, every night, sleep 30 minutes later than the previous night).
This will give your body time to adjust more gradually to the shift in schedule
Supplement with vitamins (A, C, D), Zinc, and glutathione (*)
To help your body combat the stress and boost your immunity take a combination of supplements, including: Vitamin A, D, and C, Zinc, and Glutathione.
Start this protocol a few days before travel, and keep it up for a few days after travel.
Suggested daily dosages, taken in the morning:
- Vitamin A: 3,000–6,000 IU
- Vitamin C: 1–2g
- Vitamin D: 2,000–10,000 IU
- Zinc: 20–50mg
- Glutathione: 500–1,000mg
Pack your own high-quality foods (*)
Flight meals are of fairly poor quality (especially in economy/coach). To avoid adding additional stressors to your body during the flight, pack your own food and/or buy a good amount of high-quality snacks.
Make sure to balance protein, carb, and fat intake. It is way easier to load up on snacks high on carbs and low on protein or fats.
Here are some suggestions:
- Protein: canned sardines (in water or olive oil), beef or jerky (ideally, grass fed, with as few ingredients as possible)
- Fat: coconut (fresh or dried, unsweetened), nuts (raw, no added ingredients), dark chocolate
- Carbs: fruits, high-quality bars (i.e., ones with only a handful of ingredients you recognize, such as Lara bar, Kind bar, or RX bar)
Flying East: Create sleep deprivation
When flying East, days get shorter and you’ll need to sleep earlier than you are used to match your destination schedule.
Consider creating some minor sleep deprivation. For example, sleep 6 hours instead of your usual 8 hours on the night before travel.
2. While Traveling
Switch to destination timing when you board the plane
To help your body adjust (physically and psychologically), it's very helpful to switch to your destination timing as soon as possible. That means changing the time on your phone (and watch) when you board the plane, so you can start “thinking and living” on that schedule. For instance, taking meals at the right times. This will help avoid prolonged jet lag.
Move. Your whole body. Regularly (*)
Get your whole body moving regularly, especially on longer flights. This helps with blood and lymphatic system flow. It will also help you stay alert and fresh if you need to stay up longer than you are used to, and you’ll generally feel better.
Here are a few ways I like to do this:
- Go on long walks, back and forth, down the aisles. I’ll generally listen to a podcast or audiobook while walking for an hour.
- Head to the toilet and go through a simple movement routine aiming to move every single joint and muscle in your body. This doesn’t need to be scientific. For example, start at the feet doing 10 repetitions of: rotate your ankles, calf raises, rotate the knees, squat, etc. All the way to shoulder and head rotations.
- Do something similar while sitting in your seat. You can get creative here, don’t mind your neighbour. Kelly Starrett, from mobilitywod.com, has lots of great airplane mobility tips.
Drink lots (and lots) of liquids, and minerals (*)
The plane cabin is an incredibly dry environment at 10–20% relative humidity—That's drier than most deserts [1,2]. So you’ll need to drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. Aim to drink a big glass of still or sparkling water every hour.
Even before boarding the plane (while at the airport) hydrate thoroughly to prep your body.
Ironically, you can get dehydrated from drinking too much water with low mineral content. So I suggest adding a pinch of salt to your water to replenish minerals—You’ll barely notice the difference in taste. Use a coloured salt such as pink Himalayan salt. These have a much higher mineral content.
You could also opt for coconut water or electrolyte drinks. Though I wouldn't go overboard with these. They're either high in sugar, artificial sweeteners, or other unpronounceable ingredients.
Flying West: Take naps
When flying west days get extended. For example, an 8-hour flight that departs from Frankfurt at 1 pm lands in Boston at 3 pm. When at your destination, you will be sleeping later than you are used to (i.e., 10 pm in Boston, is 4 am in Frankfurt!).
If you think you’ll need help with staying up (much) later than usual consider taking a nap.
But — this is tricky — make sure that this nap is during the daytime of your departure city, i.e., the daytime your body is adjusted to (in the example above: during the day in Frankfurt). The objective here is to help you stay up longer while minimizing “shocks” to your body.
If you take a nap during your “body’s nighttime” (e.g., 6 pm when in Boston = 12 am Frankfurt) your body will mistake this as going to bed for the night and will be more disoriented when you wake up to an alarm an hour later.
And of course, don’t forget to use an alarm. You don’t want to start a nap and accidentally wake up 8 hours later in the middle of the night at your destination city. This will further cement your old time zone and prolong your jet lag.
Use earplugs or in-ear earphones to decrease noise pollution
You may not notice this but plane cabins are extremely loud, loud enough for your body to trigger a stress response. Bring earplugs, in-ear earphones, or headphones to calm things down and help you relax.
Avoid caffeine or alcohol
Both contribute to dehydration. While they may help you feel better for a few hours, it’ll be a net negative as you exacerbate the dehydration.
Also, caffeine affects sleep as it takes a long time to get cleared from your body. So, even after you stop feeling its effects, it might still be in your bloodstream and will reduce the quality of your sleep — the sleep we’re trying to fix to reduce the impact of jet lag.
3. Upon Arrival
Get grounded, soon after landing (*)
This may sound odd, but walking barefoot or sitting on grass or earth helps your body recover from stressors.
The science behind this is that as the days go by, and especially while traveling, your body accumulates a lot of free radicals (i.e., oxygen molecules split into single atoms with unpaired electrons). This is in part due to the stressful environments we are exposed to: the foods, chemicals, radiation, pathogens, etc. If left unchecked free radicals accumulate causing oxidative stress which leads to damage to cells, proteins, and DNA and triggers a number of human diseases. [3,4]
The earth is an abundant source of free electrons that neutralize these free radicals. And getting directly in contact with the earth transfers these electrons to your body (a.k.a. “replenishes” your body).
So, if it’s not too late, shortly after landing, spend 20 minutes walking or sitting barefoot on grass. Keep this up for a few days. And consider combining this with the next point. Move!
Move, soon after landing
If it’s not too late, go for a light movement session: a 30-minute walk, yoga, or something more strenuous if you feel like it. This will help energize you, reset your clock, and set you up for a restful night of sleep. You can combine this point with the previous one (e.g., doing yoga barefoot in the park).
4. At Your Destination
As mentioned before, you want to shift to your destination schedule asap. That, of course, means that you should sleep at the normal local time.
If you’re flying West, you’ll need to fight sleepiness to stay up later. If you’re flying East, you’ll need to head to bed before feeling sleepy.
Here are four things you can do to help with this adjustment:
Exercise to help shift your sleep (*)
If you flew West and are getting sleepy early, go for some light exercise in the late afternoon, e.g., a vigorous walk, some stretching or yoga.
If you flew East, then, try exercising intensely as early as possible to tire yourself out and help you fall asleep earlier. However, you should avoid exercising 3 hours or less before bed so as to not make it harder to fall asleep.
Get exposed to sunlight at the right time
Sunlight regulates the body’s circadian rhythm. You can use that to your advantage.
If you flew West, get exposed to sunlight (eyes, face, and body) in the late afternoon and evening and avoid morning light. This will help shift your schedule to sleep later and wake up later.
If you flew East, avoid sun exposure in the late afternoon, and instead try to stay indoors in dark places to signal to your body that it’s getting late. Also, aim to get as much sunlight as possible as early as possible. This will help you shift your schedule to sleep earlier and wake up earlier.
Take a hot bath before bed
Supplement with melatonin (*)
Melatonin is the sleep hormone (amongst other functions). Supplementing smartly can help adjust your sleep cycle.
If you flew West, take melatonin right as you go to bed. Then, keep some by your bedside. If you wake up earlier than desired take some more, it will signal to your body that it's still bedtime and to shift sleep forward.
If you flew East, take melatonin 30 minutes before heading to bed to help induce sleep. I also suggest taking a supplement to help relax you, such as L-theanine or a GABA precursor (e.g., Phenibut). Chamomile or Valerian tea may help as well.
In terms of dosage, recommendations vary quite a bit. In my experience, taking 0.5–2mg of melatonin works well. But feel free to experiment and see what works best for you. Recommendations vary between 0.1 and 5mg on average.
If this feels like a lot to try in one go. You can start by doing only one or a few new techniques from each of the before, during, and after sections. I've added asterisks (*) in the titles of the ones I believe will give you the most bang for your buck.
Check it out and let me know if this is useful, what you would change, and if you have your own tips you'd like to share.