Summer is travel time for many people. Maybe you plan to go on holidays, or you live abroad and plan to travel back to your (ex)home to meet your family and friends.
Either way, the last thing you want is to feel tired and spaced out all the time, and keep waking up and falling asleep in odd hours. Losing a few days of your trip to jetlag would be a shame. So what can you do about it?
It turns out you can do a lot. Over the last few years I tested everything I could find to help me to travel at my best – whether it’s for business or for pleasure. I tried countless things recommended by sources ranging from published scientific studies, biohacking forums, as well as urban legends found on the internet.
This article distills the “minimum effective dose” of things that work for me and you can use to make your days abroad count.
TL;DR version for lazy readers
- You need to manage both jetlag and travel fatigue, they are two different things
- Jetlag is best managed by proper timing of sleep, meals and light. See example of flight from London to New York to get the idea how to do it
- Travel fatigue is best managed by focusing on good sleep, good food, proper hydration, at least some movement, and breathing.
- Sign up here to get free access to Hecatee app – it will calculate the right timing based on flight details and give you useful advice to make the best of your trip.
- Understand the problem
- Jetlag (desynchronosis)
- Travel fatigue
- Preventing jetlag
- Timing of sleep
- Timing of meals
- Strategic use of light
- Preventing travel fatigue
Understand the problem
There are 2 reasons why we feel bad after a longer flight – jetlag and travel fatigue.
Jetlag happens when you cross time zones and your body’s biorhythm is not synchronized with your new time zone.
It makes you wake up too early (if you travel westward) or makes it impossible to fall asleep in the evening (eastward). This not only impacts your sleep but many other biological processes. Circadian rhythm guides our sleep-wake cycle, but also our metabolism, brain function, controls the release of hormones (yes, including hunger and satiety hormones, cortisol, or morning erection), blood pressure, body temperature, and many other things including the amount of urine produced.
Jetlag makes us tired, unfocused, prone to illness, and clumsy in social situations. Not the best setup for the social occasion that is Christmas.
Travel fatigue is related to the stress our bodies go through when we travel.
Prolonged sitting, bad food, disrupted sleep, noise, sick flymates – all these are an attack on our immunity and recovery systems. It doesn’t help that the air in the cabin is as dry as in Death Valley, and the pressure and oxygen levels are similar as at about 5000 to 8000 ft (1524 m to 2438 m) altitude. And of course there’s stress from rushing through airports, and all the nice people from immigration and TSA who just want to make your day happier.
The side effects of travel suck. But now that we understand the problem, we can hack our way around.
Our body can only adjust ~1 time zone/day for eastbound travel, and ~1.5 time zones/day for westbound travel (our natural circadian rhythm is a bit longer than 24h, so it’s easier to “extend” the day). We could wait for it to happen, but it’s smarter to use science.
First studies of jetlag prevention focused on finding the approach that would be the magic pill to fix it. But circadian rhythm is quite a complex process, so research teams started focusing on multimodal approaches using several different tools.
There are several recent studies confirming the efficacy of 3-combo of sleep timing, meal timing and strategic use of light. There are (many) other things that help, but this article will be focusing on just these 3 (following articles will cover the rest).
But before diving into the timing of sleep, meals, and light, I recommend simple trick – set your phone to show you time in both origin and destination a few days before you fly. It will help your mind to prepare better, and it will make your planning easier.
Timing of sleep
The connection between circadian rhythm and sleep is very strong. If you want to adjust your body to a new time zone, this is where you start. If you are crossing more time zones, you will have to start adjusting a few days earlier before you fly. Going to sleep and waking up one hour earlier (if you travel east) or later (west) will help you to gently shift all the body processes guided by circadian rhythm.
To be able to time the sleep well, we need to make sure we can fall asleep. One of the following articles focus on hacks for a good sleep in odd times, but the 2 next tools – meal timing and strategic use of light – are the 2 of the most important.
Timing of meals
One of the zeitgebers for peripheral internal clocks is food. When we eat, our digestive system, liver, pancreas etc. get a signal to wake up and start doing their job. When this happens in odd time, it disrupts your circadian rhythm. Normally you would want to avoid that, but you can use it (gently) for the sake of adjusting to a new time zone. For example, if you need to adjust to waking up earlier, eat your breakfast earlier and your body will wake up better.
And of course, the other side of the coin is to strictly avoid food at times when you should not be eating (at least 3h before sleep). There’s no point in adjusting your sleep in advance, if you stuff yourself with lovely airline food when you’re supposed to sleep, just because it’s “free”.
Strategic use of light
Food resets our peripheral clocks, but light resets our central clock in our brain (one of my favorite words: suprachiasmatic nucleus). This is specifically true about the blue spectrum, and it is true about almost all organisms on Earth (blue sky = day). The advice is simple here – seek bright light when you need to wake up, avoid bright/blue light at least 2 hours before sleep. Airports are not particularly conducive to avoiding bright light, so if you need to sleep (and don’t mind weird looks) you should wear blue light blocking glasses, or at least sunglasses.
Another source of blue light is our screens – use apps like Twilight (iOS, Android), F.lux (Win, macOS, Lin, Android, iOS) or Iris ((Win, macOS, Lin, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Chrome).
Example – flight from London to New York
This may seem a bit complex, but it’s doable. Let’s see a real-life example – flight from London to New York. Duration of the flight is roughly 8 hours, and the time difference between London and New York is 5 hours (westwards = longer day). My recommendation is:
- 2 days before the flight – shift your schedule by 1 hour forward. You will wake up, eat and sleep 1 hour later than usual.
- 1 day before the flight – shift your schedule by 1 more hour. You will wake up, eat and sleep 2 hours later than usual.
- Day of flight – shift your schedule by 2 more hours (wake up, eat and sleep 4 hours later than usual) and stick to it as close as possible during the flight, even if it means you will skip the food (it’s bad for you anyway).
- Day of arrival – you only need to shift 1 more hour and you’re all set
During these days seek bright lights after waking up (sun exposure is ideal), and avoid bright lights and screens for at least 2 hours before sleep. Remember that caffeine is a bit like the sun, so seek it or avoid it the same way.
And yes, life happens, you have obligations that may not allow you to follow this 100%. But any shift in the right direction will help you to adjust faster.
There are tons of other things you can do and tools that help, from easy ones like taking melatonin (small dose please) or using Human Charger (yes it exists) through more esoteric like blinking light therapy or suppressing vasopressin, and I’ll write about those. But the timing of sleep, food and light is your Minimum Effective Dose to overcome jetlag.
Preventing travel fatigue
There are many possible reasons why you feel tired, hence there are many things you can do to prevent it. For me, these 5 are the most important
The importance of sleep is impossible to exaggerate. It restores our immunity system, brain function, neurotransmitter balance, metabolism, etc etc. Without proper sleep we can’t function physically, mentally or socially. Hacking the sleep on a plane and in hotels is a topic on itself (another article in the future). For now just quick tips – get a good sleep mask, neck pillow, pick good seat and position, manage your body temperature (cool down for sleep), and remove all the distraction. And of course synchronizing meals and light exposure is also very important.
Your body is stressed enough so you should not stress it even more by eating the wrong food. Have you ever seen aircrew eating the meals they serve you? No, because they know it’s crap. Follow their example and bring your own healthy snacks (nuts, cut veggies, dark chocolate, etc). Fasting is a great option too. Eat reasonably after you arrive to help your body recover faster.
Humidity in the cabin is around 11%, similar to Death Valley in the US. Moisturize your skin (and your nose), and drink plenty of water. Alcohol, coffee, black tea and sugary “juices” don’t really count. Many airlines will give unlimited amounts of water for free, but even if you need to pay it’s worth it. Bring a thermal flask and herbal tea, if you ask for hot water it is mostly free, and airports across Asia started installing hot water dispensers too. I usually bring beetroot juice powder for long flights and mix it with water – umami flavor seems to taste really nice up in the air. If you don’t like beets, try tomato juice instead.
Remember that “sitting is the new smoking”, and low air pressure makes it even worse. Do a few squats when you go to toilet or to get your water. Stretch your legs, back, neck and arms. The more often the better. Take a brisk walk at the airport (if you don’t need to sleep). Find a quiet escalator going down and walk as if you want to go up for quick cardio training. OK, I admit the last one gave me so many weird looks that even I only used it twice. Now I just find stairs and walk up and down. But you get the idea – use any opportunity to get your blood flowing.
Low oxygen levels in air cabin are not good for you. Together with low air pressure they could even give you symptoms of altitude sickness – headache and nausea. Good breathing can also help our body switch from sympathetic mode (fight or flight) to restorative parasympathetic mode. Choose the position that allows you to breathe well, keep your nose unblocked. I found that nasal strips help me tremendously.
These are the 5 things to help you feel better when and after you travel. As with jetlag, there are many more other tricks and tools, for example a long list of supplements I travel with to prevent inflammation, and support healthy body and focused mind.
When we travel, we want to squeeze the most out of each day. On top of that, my personal focus is on productivity, and I have a BIG health and longevity goal.
Traveling to different places brings me immense joy, but I got worried that constant travel is getting in a way of my longevity and productivity goals. This is why I keep looking for ways to improve the situation.
Over the years I’ve tested most of the “hacks” that I found reasonably safe (e.g. I haven’t tried suppressing vasopressin receptors even though it seems to help. From my experience, the above mentioned 3 tools to prevent jetlag (timing of sleep, meals and light exposure) and 5 tools to prevent travel fatigue (sleep, food, hydration, movement and breathing) are the proverbial Pareto’s 20% of effort that gives 80% of benefits.
I hope you will try them and find them as useful as I do.
Maybe you think that calculating the right times to sleep, eat or seek sunshine across different timezones is too complicated. Or you don’t want to remember steps to achieve good sleep during flight. In that case Hecatee app is exactly for you. Goal for this app is to provide you with well timed advice to help you make your trip productive and enjoyable. You can sign up here to find out when the beta version will be released in later part of 2019.
In the future you will find here more articles about some of these topics, for example how to get a good sleep on the plane or in the destination. Hecatee blog will also cover the rest of the jetlag-fighting toolbox, as well as the productivity and relax hacks for travelers.
Enjoy your trip, every single day of it.
And if you see me at the airport or on a plane (probably wearing blue light blocking glasses, neck “brace”, noise cancelling headphones or/and nasal strip), say hello!