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I love travelling but I have a major pet peeve with it.
Have you ever been boarding a plane, making your way to your seat when all of a sudden the person in front of you stops?
You know what’s coming… While going to place their bag in the overhead bin, this person has decided now is a good time to organize and search through every single compartment in their bag. Which completely stops anyone behind from making any progress.
After a few minutes they pull out the simplest thing (like headphones) which for some reason was in the most obscure corner of their bag…
My second biggest pet peeve is the jet lag that accompanies flights, especially long haul ones. Having bad jet lag can really impact your ability to perform and function for a few days. That’s what this post is about and to tackle it best I feel it’s better to separate the tactics for short flights vs long ones.
On short flights:
On all flights the plane is pressurized to be at 8,000 feet. While this is far lower than the actual altitude the plane flies at, it’s still higher than most people’s bodies are used too. As such it does have an impact on you. This will improve as aviation technology and planes get better but for now it is what we have. *I’ve recently learned the new Boeing 787 is pressured at 6,000 feet, progress!
Another unfortunate side effect of flying is the air in the plane cabin is always very dry. This is because the outside air at 37,000 feet that they pump into the planes circulation system contains very little moisture. Until they figure out how to put a heaving humidifier or similar system on the plane, this will be the case.
Lack of blood flow:
I mentioned the altitude thing above for a reason. Turns out your body and blood at 8,000 feet absorbs less oxygen then what we are accustomed too. This in turns causes us to feel far more drowsy and lethargic. This is amplified as by sitting we effectively are switching off our muscles and a large amount of blood flow in our body.
If you are unlucky enough to be on a flight with me, you will see I will be the guy near the back of plane doing lunges, bodyweight squats and other stretches. I aim to get up and move around every 30-40 minutes to ensure my blood and heart is pumping to mitigate the effects above.
On a flight to Beijing a few months back I had a women sitting next to me. She did not get up once for 5 hours. I have no idea how she did this.
Don’t be afraid to bring a water bottle on the plane. Most flight attendants (so far) don’t mind filling it for me. Due to the dry air you will dehydrate faster than normal because of the air on a plane. Dehydration isn’t good for anything and will make for a worse experience.
While travelling, try to stick with foods that are primarily just fat and protein. Generally speaking food airlines is not the greatest (unless you’re flying one of the 5 star airlines, like Cathay Pacific or Singapore). Most airline food is basically all carbs, and the hormone release from that combined with sitting for prolonged periods will put you right to sleep.
On longer flights, jet lag is caused by a combination of all of the above, plus the time change difference to wherever you are travelling too.
Your body naturally wants to follow the circadian rhythm. If you’re not doing your best to follow this your performance, energy and focus will always suffer.
When you take a 12 hour flight and all of a sudden 8pm becomes 8am, your bodies internal clock is basically saying “Wtf just happened”.
It’s trying to prepare you to go to bed, meanwhile the sun shining down is activating your daytime hormones and your body let’s out a 404 Error. (Sorry for the nerdy reference). Instead of an error screen, we get fatigue, drowsiness, lethargic and being unable to fall asleep when we want too.
Now the good news is, there are a number of tweaks and hacks you can do to try and mitigate these effects.
While I don’t think it is possible to completely fight the effects of jet lag, we can definitely do a few things to make it annoy us less.
All the steps above for short flights are still applicable to long flights, we will just add in a few more things.
Wear ear plugs.
The level of noise on a plane is usually anywhere between 60-65db, which isn’t terrible but is high enough to release the stress hormone cortisol in our body. (Biologically speaking, loud noises stress our bodies out). This again is something that probably will improve but for now it is what it is. Personally speaking for me, this was a game changer! I have never felt so at peace or calm when I started wearing these on flights. It completely drowns out the world and noises around you to help you reach a new level of focus.
Schedule your flights to land in the evening
This is probably one of the most effective ways I’ve seen to overcome jet lag quickly. The only challenging part is, you need to suck it up and not really sleep on the long haul flight. Quick naps aren’t bad, but sleeping for any prolonged period of time will make it incredibly challenging to fall asleep when you land. Which is exactly what you want.
Landing in the evening allows you a couple calm down hours before you head to bed. Most importantly, it will help reset your body to be immediately on the time zone you’re in. When you wake up the next morning, you will be waking up in the local time.
Another fun part of landing in the evening is it is a great time to eat a carb heavy meal. Why? Eating a high carb meal will release the hormones we want (serotonin) to put us in a relaxed state to head to sleep. Go ahead and dive into that bowl of pasta or sandwich. Combine that with a melatonin supplement and you should have no problems sleeping on your new time zone.
Get some sun:
If you were able to accomplish the above, the next morning head outside to immediately get some sun. The bright morning sun hitting your body, will trigger your day time hormones. This will help reset your body to effectively know that “this is the new morning time”.
You could also get this same effect using a blue light which you can buy off Amazon. Nothing beats the natural sun though.
Prep your body for the time zone you are heading to:
This one is a bit trickier.
The general idea is that our body is used to a routine. It has a time of when it expects certain things to happen (like when we eat our meals).
If we can preemptively get our bodies routines onto the new time zone before we get there it will make the transition (and jetlag) much easier.
The easiest way to do this is with our eating schedule. I read enough about this to consider giving it a try. I put it into practice on my flight to and from Beijing from SFO.
Here’s how it would work. The day before or of my flight I would have my first meal at the local breakfast time in Beijing.
Beijing is 13 or 14 hours ahead of San Francisco depending upon daylight savings time.
My usual breakfast time is 8am. That means the day of the flight in San Francisco, I would not eat until 4PM.
This fast period during the day would be the time when I would be asleep on the new time zone. This works best if you can schedule an afternoon or evening flight. If you can do that, then you would have your “lunch” and “dinner” while on the flight to the destination.
This website has a cool jet lag calculator where you enter in your starting point and destination to figure out your eating times.
This is obviously a bit more of an “advanced” trick but I found it to be fairly effective as well.
When executing all of the above, my jet lag to and from Beijing was very manageable. Previously I had done a similar trip, from North America to South Korea. I did not do any of this and my jet lag was 10x worse.
I plan to keep it up for each flight I go on.
While I don’t think it is possible to completely fight the effects of jet lag, we can definitely do a few things to minimize it.