Fighting Jet Lag

Picture of the island from Hong Kong Harbor

Travel often comes up in conversations with friends. It cracks me up when they tell me they just got back from California and they are “jet lagged.” It’s true that travel is tiring and a 2-hour difference can cost you some sleep, but you haven’t experienced jet lag until you’ve traveled overseas.

My most recent experience with jet lag was in June when I went to Asia for 10 days. China’s East Coast is exactly 12 hours ahead of EST. That makes it easy to know what time it is back home, but extra hard for your body to adjust.

Discussing jet lag is interesting because everyone seems to have a different strategy to minimize it (it’s impossible to avoid it). Special drink concoctions, herbal medicine, prescription drugs meant for other things, strange sleeping patterns, etc. are all things people have suggested to me. I’m not really one for all the voodoo, so I try to keep it simple and it usually works out. Now, I’m not going to claim that my method is the best option out there, but it is easy and it works for me.

Here’s an example of my recommended approach:

Start trying to adjust to your destination’s time zone as soon as you board the plane. Traveling to Asia, I left Chicago at 10:40am CST. That means it was almost midnight in China. I immediately went to sleep and slept for 4 hours. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped my internal clock start moving. When I woke up, it was about 4am, Shanghai time. I stayed awake for the rest of the trip watching movies and arrived in Shanghai around 4pm. I kept myself awake until 8pm, went to bed and woke up feeling pretty good around 7am. Note that no matter how much or little sleep you get the first night, you’re going to hit a wall around 3pm. I drank a 5 Hour Energy and it helped enough to get me through the work day without becoming a full-fledged zombie.

Boeing 777 Business Class to Shanghai

The return from Asia is different; it’s much more difficult. I’ve always heard that traveling east is worse than going west. I’m not sure why, but it has certainly proved true for me. My advice for coming back is to stick with a strict routine for about three days. When you get home, have prescription sleeping pills ready and take one to knock you out at 9pm. Wake up the next day, don’t nap, and repeat that process the next night. If you can do that for 3-4 days, you should be feeling better.

When I returned from Asia, I made a huge mistake. I followed my plan the first night, then the weekend hit and I had birthday parties to go to on Friday and Saturday night. I hit a second wind around midnight and ended up staying up until 5am both mornings. After all, it felt like 5pm to me. This made my transition horribly painful and dragged it out for 2-3 weeks.

Feel free to try all the gimmicks and fancy tricks (some may work), but I believe the most important thing is to stick to a schedule. Help your body build back its normal routine and get into a pattern. If you derail, you’re going to regret it, so develop a strategy you can succeed with and stick to it.

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15 Responses to Fighting Jet Lag

  1. Christopher Lincoln says:

    Good post. As a frequent traveler myself, I can agree with the setting-your-time-zone to your destination tactic. I went to Asia 5 times last year alone and always tried to stay awake as much as possible on the flight out there – then promptly hit the sack upon evening arrival at your hotel. I usually arrive on Sundays so being highly-effective come Monday morning is the goal. On the voyage back, getting as much sleep as possible on the flight is key as you arrive home morning/mid-day and keeping awake until a reasonable hour is a true test. Napping is the enemy. Here’s one other “natural” suggestion that’s worked for me…the gym. Working-out every morning after arriving in Asia and every evening after returning home will turn that 2-3 week jet lag-over into a few days or less. I dunno if it has to do with increased blood flows or the release of endorphins and hormones into the body but it has proved to be my best cure for fighting the lag. Hope that helps.

    • jsbull says:

      That’s a great tip Chris. I don’t hit the gym regularly (too lazy), so that strategy never occurred to me, but I can imagine it would energize you and get your body back to normal more quickly. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Bad Ass Dad says:

    I have no tips, I generally sleep as much as I can on the plane. I work in W Africa, and fly out from CDG back home to Westcoast of Canada on a regular basis. Both ways SUCKS. Usually I take a naproxen and a sparkling wine and I’m out. Problem is, when i’m back home or back in africa, I get the Wall as well. I even slept through Christmas last year. No magic tricks unfortunately.

  3. Love your blog. I would also add that being outside or sitting near windows during daylight hours helps you adjust in either direction. Your body responds to natural light and it helps your clock to re-set. I went to India a couple of years ago from San Francisco, my first international trip ever. Between your tactics, staying well hydrated, and seeking out the sun during the day helped very much. I experienced little to no jet lag at all. A recent trip to Europe with the same strategy was successful, although the adjustment coming back was just a little harder. I think I was just exhausted from the trip in general.

  4. Anon Guest says:

    These are great tips. I never have a problem keeping myself awake, regardless of destination (therefore, flying west is a breeze for me), but falling asleep is the major challenge. My company is headquartered in Berlin, so I travel there several times a year and it’s always a major pain. Even with prescription sleeping pills I’m tossing and turning and can’t ever get restful sleep on a plane, or in the rock hard euro beds when I’m there. Three glasses of wine and a lunesta can’t even do it. I would LOVE to hear your thoughts or see a sidebar post on tactics for getting the best sleep while traveling. Which pills are most effective, tuning out airplane noise, uncomfortable hotel beds, etc. I’m sure a ninja like you has great advice on that one!

    • jsbull says:

      Anon, those questions are tricky ones. I’ll give some short answers here though.

      Medicine: I personally have used NyQuil Zzz, which is only their sleep aid, not any medicine. I’ve also taken Ambien, but with the crazy reactions some people have, that’s dangerous at 20,000 feet – and you definitely don’t want to mix alcohol with it. Melatonin is a solution I have yet to try, but friends report that it works well, and is natural.

      In the end, consult a doctor and try it out on land first!

      Noise is an easy one for me. If I’m trying to fall asleep, I put in some comfortable earbuds (Shure and Bose work well), play Explosions In The Sky, and I’m out pretty fast. The key is to block out the noise and relax.

      Uncomfortable hotel beds: Wow, not sure on this one. I’ve had some bad beds in my day, but most decent hotel chains are pretty consistent. Find one that suits you and stick with it. I roll with Starwood hotels whenever possible. As a bonus, they have my favorite rewards program too.

      Not a full blog post (maybe the start to one), but maybe something you haven’t tried.

  5. DGF says:

    If a person is going from the East Coast of the U.S. to China, is it necessarily 12 hours ahead? As far as your body is concerned, couldn’t it just as easily be 12 hours behind? I’m going to China this summer. In the past, when I went to England, and a few years later to Kenya, I found it very helpful to wake up an hour earlier each day for a week or so before the trip, so that my body is on the destination’s time schedule when I get there. It seems to me I shouldn’t have to wake up an hour later for 12 days to prepare for this trip – just do the hour EARLIER for 12 days. Thoughts?

    • jsbull says:

      Due to the date line, it’s technically 12 hours ahead, but to your body, it doesn’t really matter. 12pm feels like 12am. Waking up an hour earlier each day is probably a great way to get acclimated, but that’s a significant commitment. Maybe working to knock off 6 hours over 2 weeks or something would be less of a pain and still help. That’s a great suggestion.

      In my experience, heading East is much harder than going West. Coming home from China was the toughest for me.

  6. tallysimmons says:

    I have to work overnights in the Phillipinnes for very short trips from the USA. I don’t work overnights at home, so I actually stay on relatively the same time zone. However I actually thinks this makes my jet lag coming home worse. Not to mention the 40 hours between layovers and flight time it takes to get home. Has anyone else experienced horrible jet lag like this?

  7. Hey Travel Ninja, please tell me what you think about this tactic (for vacationers not workers). Say, if you’re travelling abroad, EST to say Japan. Japan is 14 hours ahead. What do you think that rather than try to fight the time zones, just give in to in and live life upside down? Meaning, get up in Japan at 12 midnight start your day, have breakfast, be the first at any popular destination, just get a jump start on everyone else before they even have a chance to get up. Have lunch at 6am, dinner at 12noon, go to sleep at 4pm. Weird right? Wonder if anyone has tried this?

    • jsbull says:

      That would be nice, but I see two challenges. First, your body uses light to acclimate itself to time. So trying to wake up at night and sleep during the day will be challenging. Workers who work the graveyard shift spend months acclimating to that schedule before it feels natural (if it ever does). The second challenge is that if you wake up at midnight to start your day, everything is going to be closed. You’ll have one heck of a time finding something to do in the dark at 4am local time. If there were 24 hour attractions, then this could be a solid option. I just know the stuff my wife and I like to see on vacation wouldn’t be as much fun in the dark.

      We went to Hawaii a couple of months ago and it was nice to take a 5am flight to Maui the second day we were there. We woke up easy and were early for the flight. The return that night was painful though!

      • Yes, Jsbull that would indeed be a challenge. I should mention that the rationale for this approach is based on the following criteria:
        a) a two week vacation to a 14 hour time zone difference
        b) the visiting city could support a quasi night/day set of activities
        c) ‘older’ people may have more difficulty with jet lag (so this is focused on that group of people)
        d) is it possible to come back and not re-live jet lag in the other direction?

        So having laid out the above, if it truly takes “1 day per hour of time zone” change for our bodies to adjust, then I’m pretty much euchred for the entire trip. As soon as I’m fully climatized, it will be time to leave. Doing the travel in flight sleep/stay awake swap routine, will help, but speaking from experience, it has not helped me by much. In fact, like you, I too went to Hawaii, this past summer, and the first four days were a right off, literally, we we had our faces in our dinner plates. Good on you, sounds like you did alright.

        In my Japan research, apparently it’s a city that never sleeps. Granted, most shopping malls close at 8pm, but there are plenty of 24/7 ones open, including restaurants, bars, night clubs.

        I agree that light/dark thing would take getting used to, but
        a) my thought (this thread) on a two week trip is what would happen, and would be be possible to not to entirely switch over my circadian rhythm, and
        b) my suspicion is that the off set of jet lag would be more than sufficient a reward for the shift in lighting routine. What I mean is that I’ll feel entire wide awake in the middle of the wee hours of night fall, in Japan, so why not just roll with it?

        Lastly, this approach would ease one back into their regular time zone upon coming home much more readily than otherwise. Which from a work perspective would be a god send.

        Well, it’s just a thought experiment, like you said, it would be challenging to convince my fam to take this odd approach. Each of us will take their own approach based their circumstance. Me, fortunately, I have some flexibility right now to try to shift my clock to a significant degree. As my friend mentioned to me today, I will be alert and the rest walking zombies : )

      • jsbull says:

        If there’s an “older” group that wants to focus on bars and nightclubs in the middle of the night, I want to be on that trip! 🙂

        I do think it’s smart to start preparing yourself in advance. At least push your normal sleep schedule by 3-4 hours. It may not make up for the 14 hour difference, but it’s better than nothing. Good thinking!

        I will say that returning has always been more difficult for me than going. It may be the hangover from the original jet lag, or maybe going East is always more difficult. I’ve heard claims of both.

  8. Sinnerbad says:

    Nothing works short of drugging myself …I fly to Asia 4 times a year , when I get there I crash and it’s up at 6 am and slightly foggy around 6.30pm. I work a full day and will sleep from 11 pm to 5.30 am but I take a sleeping pill at night for 3 nights .
    The returns is awful ..This last trip was only 6 days , been back 6 days and not tired at all .I crash at 3 am and have to be up at 6 for work ..went to the gym every other day ..can barely stay awake at 8pm ,if I crash I am up at midnight ..wide awake . I stayed awake until 11.30 , went to bed was bright and chirpy until 3.30 ..crashed when I had to get out of bed.Trying to let my body adjust on It’s own , taking too long .been working from 1 am to 3.30 and everyone’s’ like wow ..I am not wow ok
    Ten years ago I would suffer 3 days after I returned for 2 days or so ..but nothing like this …

    Any advice

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