Jet lag is a disease of the mind

Kunal Gupta
Mar 20 · 5 min read

After a recent three week world tour that took me to Australia, Singapore, the Middle East and South Africa, someone on my team asked me “how do you deal with jet lag”, to which I responded off the cuff with “jet lag is a disease of the mind”.

It’s telling of how I actually feel about jet lag and in the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to it. What I have uncovered is that jet lag is a choice. If I suffer from it, it is because I have chosen to. If I am unaffected by it, it is also because I have chosen to.

I do not think avoiding jet lag is a matter of luck or chance. In the past decade, I’ve taken an estimated 600+ flights, a good number of them across time zones. What I’ve learned is that with greater awareness of my body and mind, jet lag naturally becomes less of an art and more of a science.

It starts with having confidence, faith and belief that I will be fine (and am fine). The moment fear or negative thoughts towards jet lag enter my mind, I’ve already lost. I genuinely believe that jet lag is a disease of the mind, hence this short essay to share my conviction in this belief.

There are a few practical guidelines I can share on how I choose to avoid jet lag.

One to two days before I am about to leave for an international trip, I begin to anticipate where I will be and what time it is there. This light mental conditioning is to get myself prepared, almost at an subconscious level. By infecting my mind with neutral thoughts of where I will be, I am also preventing myself from grabbing onto anxious thoughts tied to the change in time zone.

I make responsible choices for my body, being selective of what I put into it. No alcohol. No caffeine. Nothing with added sugar. All of these stimulants or depressants are unnatural and mess with the body (and mind).

A few natural supplements can be useful, specifically vitamin D (which I’ll take every morning wherever I am) and melatonin (a natural sleep aid that I’ll take when it’s time for me to sleep while traveling).

A few words on melatonin. Often referred to as the “sleep hormone”, it is produced naturally by a tiny part near the middle of your brain. If your brain was a house with many rooms in it, the process of falling asleep is the equivalent to the light switch in each room being turned off. So when you feel “half asleep” or “half awake”, there is truth to the statement as some of your brain regions are asleep or awake. Melatonin is the hormone that turns off the light in each relevant part of your brain to allow us to sleep. It is produced naturally but what interferes with its production is blue light.

Where does blue light come from? Screens. The light emitted from your smartphone, laptop or television gets in the way of the natural production of melatonin. And that is likely a big reason why you may find it difficult to sleep. As a general bedtime routine, it’s advised to completely avoid screens for 1–2 hours before you intend to fall asleep.

Note that while melatonin supplements work for most of the population, you should do your own research or consult with someone you trust before blindly taking them.

While on a flight, I am intentional of when I choose to look at the inflight entertainment system or work on my laptop, fully aware that if I’m planning to snooze soon, then it’s best to avoid screens for the 1–2 hours leading up to my inflight bedtime.

Another natural sleep aid for me is reading. Especially if it is boring. I will subject myself to reading something uninteresting on a flight if I am getting ready to bedtime and it works beautifully.

Food is equally important. Again, I am not consuming anything with added sugar which is not natural and messes with my body (and mind). I will deliberately eat a heavier or larger meal (including buying something overpriced but healthy at the airport before boarding) if I know that I intend to sleep. The reverse is also true, if I intend to stay awake, I will deliberately eat less.

Once I’ve arrived in my new place, I eat based on where I am without fail. It does not matter if I am hungry or not, putting food into my body accelerates the adjustment of my body clock (and also avoiding putting food into my body when it is not mealtime).

A common issue with changing time zones is how my mind will react when I inevitably will wake up earlier than expected on my first night or two in the new place. How I respond internally in those initial moments when I realize it’s 3 a.m. and I’m wide awake are crucial. Choosing to accept reality as it is, not as a I wish it to be, is what allows me to see it positively. ‘I have a few hours now to meditate, journal, yoga and prepare for my work day’. I find those few hours before everyone wakes up are precious, quiet and peaceful, on the outside. Initially they were not very peaceful on the inside but I have learned that as soon as I accept that I’m awake, my mind is at peace.

Finally, meditation, breathing and general mindfulness techniques really serve me while flying and once I’ve arrived. They help me regulate my mind, become aware of any strong thought patterns or emotions and acknowledge my reality in that moment.

A few years ago, I realized for the first time that I am not my body. If I am the driver, my body is the vehicle. I have a responsibility to care for it and depend greatly on it to experience life. This level of abstraction and detachment has helped me to be more objective about how I treat my body and be more intentional with it. My choice to not suffer from jet lag is reflected in my actions that ultimately influence my body. In the end, my body and I on this journey together and it’s in our best interest for me to be kind, compassionate and caring to it.

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Further reading:

A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation

I Like, I Wish, I Wonder

We Can do Anything but Not Everything

More about what I’m up to these days at ByKunal.com.

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Kunal Gupta

Written by

Business leader, mindfulness teacher, blog at findfocus.today, current projects at bykunal.com