Avoiding Jet Lag

Thu 25 July 2013

tags: travel

And now for something completely different...

As part of my job - educating and evangelizing and whatever else you call it - I travel a fair amount. I know there are other people who travel ten times as much as I do, but then there are many more who travel less than a tenth as much. As everyone who does travel frequently knows, jet lag is a very real problem. Most of us travel across the country or across the world because something is important. It's very depressing when you're at your destination, trying to do something important, and your brain is so fogged by jet lag that you can barely put together a coherent sentence. The really funny thing, as I just noted to my seat-mate on BA203 from LHR to BOS with regard to typing, is that a lot of people who absolutely live to optimize the hell out of every little thing they do never try to optimize around jet lag. Therefore, I'll share something that has worked for me and might work for you.

I can't in any way take credit for this idea as my own invention. I read about it in a magazine a while ago, probably The Atlantic but I'm not sure. In that article, they cited this technique as being in use by the US military, Olympic teams, and so on. They probably also cite the scientific sources better than I'm going to. In any case, the very basic observation is this:

Your body's clock is determined at least as much by when you eat as by when you sleep.

Thus, even though jet lag is a problem of sleep and wakefulness, the way to address it is through your stomach. Specifically, if you fast for a while your body's clock goes into "free wheeling" mode (much like pushing in the clutch on a manual-transmission car). Then, the next big meal is interpreted as dinner (getting back in gear) with sleep soon to folow. Therefore, the smart thing to do is don't eat on the plane. Instead: fast until an appropriate dinner time for your destination, then eat a full dinner, then sleep.

My interpretation has been to start fasting a full day before my anticipated arrival time. It's not a total fast, because if I didn't eat at all then my stomach noises both be uncomfortable and annoy people around me. Similarly, I don't make heroic efforts to avoid sleep. When I get to that point where I can just barely keep my eyes open or focus on what somebody's saying, then I'll take a short nap. Fortunately, I've always been good at cat-naps. If I don't want to sleep more than an hour maximum, then it's very unlikely that I'll do so - even without an alarm. (Heck, I had to get up at 3am local time for my flight today, and I woke up "naturally" at 2:55. It's a handy feature.) The key is to eat and sleep little enough to avoid sending that "now we know when to sleep" signal. That way, when you send the real signal with a big dinner, your body responds to it. It's definitely hard. I've been bumped up to one of the better-food sections on this flight for the first time in forever, and it's hard to say no when everybody around me is eating. Still, a little bit of discomfort in the air helps to avoid much more discomfort on the ground later.

How well does this work? I've done it on my last two Bangalore trips, plus my last coast-to-coast trip. Actually I'm not quite done with the second Bangalore trip; I'm somewhere slightly south of Greenland as I write this. Still, I feel very encouraged that I haven't had any jet lag at all during any of those trips. I find myself going to bed at a normal time for where I am, getting up at a normal time, and not feeling particularly tired during the day. Meanwhile, co-workers on the same trips have been literally falling down because of jet lag. Sure, I've had periods of being tired during the day, but I don't think that has anything to do with jet lag. If you put me in a windowless room with twenty other people to talk about something boring right after lunch, I'm going to nod off a bit regardless of what time zones are involved.

So, there it is. It's a very simple idea, it almost seems obvious, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who've already heard of it. Still, it seems like a lot of people either haven't heard of it or haven't tried it, so here's a data point for you.

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