Anti-Jetlag 101

Or, how to help your body figure out what the fuck is going on

I travel quite a lot, and have an approach to dealing with jetlag that works pretty well for me (read: I’m usually a bit tired for a day or two, but not totally out of it and not on a weird schedule). I’m sure the below won’t be new to seasoned travelers, but enough of the people I talk to don’t find it obvious that I thought I’d write it up. I hope you find it helpful.

How I deal with jetlag is based on two key principles and two big rules.

pictured: my 2017

Two principles:

  1. The human body keeps track of day-night cycles using a whole bunch of subconscious processes that take data from a range of sources (especially the retinas), then use that data to decide when is day and when is night. For most people most of the time, these processes work really well. The trouble comes in when you walk into a 7-meter-wide metal tube, shoot through the sky at 900km/h, and walk out again on a totally different part of the planet. The upshot: beating jetlag is simply about giving your body as much evidence as you can about when is day and when is night, so that it can resync to the new reality. That’s it.
  2. Conveying to your body that you’ve changed timezones is a different problem from sleep deprivation. Usually when you travel across multiple timezones, you’ll end up dealing with both problems— but don’t get them confused. This post is mostly about the timezones.

My top two rules are based on the fact that it’s usually easier to force yourself to stay awake than to force yourself to go to sleep:

  1. Make it a major priority to be awake for 16-ish hours before the first “bedtime” in your new timezone. Depending on when you land, this could mean being awake for all or part of your flight, or could just mean staying awake all day after landing in the morning. Whatever your timing, figure out in advance when the 16 hour mark is and stick to it as best you can. 
    Since the key part is to be tired at bedtime, it’s generally fine if you end up being awake longer than 16 hours (though it may mean you need to get extra sleep for a few nights to deal with the sleep deprivation). Likewise, it can work OK to start the clock on being awake somewhere less than 16 hours before first bedtime if you’re confident you’ll be exhausted (e.g. because you’re already sleep deprived), though this one can be riskier.
  2. As much as possible, do not take naps during daylight hours for at least the first 3 days after you land. Put a friend on no-naps duty to prod you; splash cold water on your face; do jumping jacks; resort to caffeine if you have to. Again, if sleep deprivation is going to be an issue, plan on sleeping extra long for those first few nights — but make sure it’s during regular-ish sleeping hours. 
    If you really absolutely can’t keep your eyes open, it’s probably OK to let yourself nod off for a few minutes somewhere that is brightly lit (ideally by sunlight) and not particularly comfortable — I usually find that letting myself do this for 5–15 minutes gets me through the worst wave of sleepiness. But be warned: figuratively speaking, taking a nap when your body’s confused about day and nightis like blindfolding your circadian rhythm and spinning it in circles just as it was starting to tentatively walk in the right direction. If you absolutely must close your eyes for a bit, try to do it in a way that is as daytime-like and as short as possible, and when you wake up, go stare at the blue sky or take a brisk walk. [this point edited to add how to deal with unbearable sleepiness; ideally, just don’t nap.]

Beyond those two main rules, there are a whole number of other ways to give your body evidence about when is day and when is night. I usually do most of these, depending on what’s convenient on a given trip. In rough order from most to least recommended:

  • Adjust your clock as soon as you can (for most people, this means adjusting the timezone on your phone and laptop). At the latest, do this when you get on your last flight, since at that point you definitely don’t need to know the time in your departure city any more.
  • Do your best to make the light and darkness you’re seeing sync up with night and day at your destination, as soon you can. If it’s daytime, try to find blue light — ideally blue sky. You can often go open a window shade near the restrooms on planes to get some quality UV onto your retinas while all the schmucks around you sleep. If it’s nighttime, try to stay in the dark or with orange light; if you haven’t already, download f.lux for your laptop (and set it to be in your destination timezone as early as you can).
  • Take melatonin before going to sleep for the first night or two. It works much better in this context than other drugs that make you sleepy (or awake), since it is literally the chemical that signals to your circadian clock that night is falling, rather than meddling with your wakefulness by hotwiring some other system.
  • If it’s daytime but you feel sleepy, some form of physical exertion (even just walking briskly up and down the aisle of the plane) can help. See also Rule #2.
  • For goodness’ sake don’t go around telling your friends things like “Bahh, I’m so tired, it’s 2am in Paris”. Are you trying to fuck yourself up? You’re in San Francisco and it’s early evening. Pull yourself together.
  • If traveling east, consider deliberately being a bit sleep deprived (e.g. by getting up extra early on the day you’re flying). When you go east your day gets shorter, so being tired at the right time is more challenging than flying west. (This may just cash out to be the same thing as Rule #1, but sometimes it can help to think further in advance for eastbound trips.)
  • Plan on needing to catch up on sleep for the first few days after you travel, but — again — do that catching up at night. Sleep deprivation is different from timezone change; don’t fuck up your body’s attempts to figure out what’s when by napping willy-nilly.
  • Another tip I’ve heard (but done less often myself) is to stop eating for 8 hours corresponding to nighttime at your destination, even if your itinerary makes it difficult for you to be asleep that whole time. Your body is used to fasting while you sleep, so there’s reason to believe that choosing to fast will help it figure out when is night.

I know that dealing with this kind of thing is different for everyone, so I’m sorry if these ideas don’t work for you. I’m sleep privileged in that I can almost always fall asleep if I’m tired, which definitely makes the above more doable. (But I think that applies to the majority of people, and I’m not sleep privileged in how well I cope with sleep deprivation — i.e. terribly — so I do think this post should be applicable for most people.) Even for people who struggle to fall asleep, I hope the principles and tips are somewhat useful.

To recap, the two biggest rules are:

  1. Make sure you’re tired by bedtime.
  2. NO NAPS.

What did I miss? Are there other good ways to help your body figure out what’s going on? Am I a know-it-all who’s neglecting things like how jetlag hits you harder as you get older? (Probably.) Other thoughts?

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