My basic jet lag protocol already works so well that there’s absolutely no reason to try including any newfangled hacks, tips, or pills. It’s based entirely on human circadian biology, which hasn’t changed for hundreds of thousands of years. I literally never get jet lag if I stick to my methods. And I put it to the test on a regular basis, traveling quite extensively on transcontinental flights. Jet lag is supposed to get worse with age, but it’s only gotten easier and easier for me.
The experts would have you believe that each hour of time zone change requires one full day to adjust. That was certainly true for me in my 20s when I went to Europe without knowing anything about circadian rhythms, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to get jet lag. You shouldn’t. And I’m going to tell you how to avoid it. Let’s get right into it.
Preparing for Flying East vs. West
To begin with, how you treat the flight is going to differ somewhat based on what direction you’re flying.
Preparing for Flying East
- Break eastbound overnight flights into two short “days”. If you’re doing a big flight east, heading over the Atlantic or Pacific to new lands, it will generally be an overnighter. With that in mind, break your flight up into two short “days.” If the flight is eight hours, the first four hours are “night” and the last four are “day.” If it’s 16 hours, the first eight are nighttime and the last eight are day.
- Sleep at “night”. Sleep as much as you can, as early as you can, during the “nighttime” portion of the flight. This will help normalize your circadian biology and get your body into the “mindset” of day and night. Don’t eat at “night.”
- Stay awake during the “day”. Act just like you do in normal daytime. Read, work, catch up on emails, watch movies. Just stay awake. If it were acceptable to walk the aisles, I’d say walk the aisles.
- Get all your calories in during the “day”. You don’t have to eat, but if you’re going to eat, do so in the “daytime” portion of the flight.
Preparing for Flying West
- For long flights west, a short nap in the middle is fine. Let your body decide to sleep or not. Just don’t sleep so long that you end up having trouble sleeping at the new location when night comes.
- Eat, or not. But don’t overdo it.
Inflight Tips for Avoiding Jet Lap
Fasting has been shown to help stave off jet lag, so fasting can actually help you adapt to the new time zone.
Set your watch
Setting your watch and clock to the new time zone before you actually get there helps you get in the “mood” or mindset of the new location. This can happen subconsciously, and I firmly believe your body will begin adjusting in subtle ways simply by setting the clock.
Don’t get to sleep using alcohol or sleeping pills
Sleep without pharmacological enhancement. It’s the worst thing to use to get to sleep. Your sleep will be disrupted, poorly constructed, and it won’t “take.” Your body won’t interpret it as real sleep, setting you back even further.
Consider the window seat
The con of the window seat is you have to climb over people to go to the bathroom. But if you’re trying to get some sleep on the flight, having the window to wedge up against is worth it. And you won’t have people climbing over you all during the flight to get to the bathroom. The pros outweigh the con for me.
Have a tomato juice
The salty potassium-rich tomato juice is incredibly helpful for keeping you hydrated and preventing the amount of urination you have to do. Something special about a can of tomato juice on a plane.
What to Do When You Land to Avoid Jet Lag
Adapt your mindset to the new location
It’s not a “new time zone.” It’s “your” time zone. You are here, living in this time zone. Treat it like a normal day. Set your watch, forget what happened the day before. This is your here, this is your now. Adapt.
Stay awake and active until bedtime in the new location
When you arrive, stay up and active until bedtime in the new location. No napping. Keep moving.
Be outside as much as possible
The natural light is your friend. It will help set your circadian rhythm and it’ll keep you awake.
Take a long walk
Walk as long as you can. It’ s great way to explore a new city, and it keeps you moving and keeps you from wanting to nap. It also exposes you to sunlight, which as I explained will improve your circadian realignment to the new location.
Eat a meal at the right times, but don’t go too heavy
Food is another circadian entrainer. Eat meals in accordance with the right meal times at the location.
Keep a bar of dark chocolate on you
If I land in the AM in the new location, I’ll make sure to eat half a bar of dark chocolate for breakfast along with some coffee. Dark chocolate has been shown to help stave off jet lag when eaten for breakfast (albeit in animals).
Preparing for Bedtime in the New Location
Take 10 mg melatonin before bed
45 minutes before bedtime in the new location, take 10 mg of melatonin. This will help you get to sleep quicker, sure, but more importantly it will tell your circadian clock that it’s bedtime and get you adjusted to the new time zone.
Next night, take 5 mg. The next next night, take 2.5 mg. Then you’re done with melatonin.
Follow all the normal sleep hygiene rules
Reduce artificial light after dark, wear blue blocking goggles, perform the same bedtime routine you follow at home, read some fiction in bed. All the sleep hygiene rules still apply.
What to Do the Next Day
Train outside in the early morning sun
Go for a run, do some sprints, or get a workout in outside in the sun. If you can manage doing it as the sun rises, all the better. Intense physical activity coupled with AM sun helps establish and entrain your new circadian rhythm.
Maintain previous day strategies
Long walk, lots of light, stay active, no napping, regular meals. Keep it up to maintain the adaptation.
Common Mistakes People Make with Jet Lag
Taking a nap when they arrive. This is supposed to “take the edge off” things, but all it does is keep your circadian rhythm hewed to your home time zone and ruin your ability to adapt to the new one.
Avoiding melatonin. People think taking melatonin is “unnatural.” You know what’s unnatural? Flying halfway across the world and expecting your circadian rhythm to just adjust on its own. Melatonin is an incredibly useful tool for entraining a new rhythm. Everyone should use it.
Pigging out and binge drinking. You’re tired from the long flight. You’re irritable. You’re on edge. It might feel good to eat a giant meal of junk food and open a bottle of wine (or two), but don’t do it. You’re only setting yourself back.
Taking it easy. Taking it easy the first day feels like a good idea because you’re exhausted, but it’s the last thing you need. Instead of “taking it easy” in the hotel, drawing the shades, and watching weird foreign TV, you need to be out and about experiencing the new location and getting adapted.
And thus concludes my jet lag protocol. It’s easy and feels quite natural. After all that, life will feel normal and you can simply enjoy the trip!