Like the dreaded hangover after a massive drinking session, jet lag is one of those annoying realities many of us Aussies are all too well accustomed to. Like a hangover, the longer the flight (binge), the more time zones (bars) you cross and the less sleep you get the longer and more painful the jet lag.
Currently I’m sitting in a lounge in Doha, halfway through one of the longest transits I’ve ever done… and that includes many 30+ hour journeys between Australia and Europe.
Since leaving my Manhattan apartment roughly twenty hours ago I’ve already flown 11,000km and crossed eight time zones getting to the Arab Emirates, and thanks to rescheduling caused by the epic Polar Vortex snow storm I now have a seven hour layover here in Doha. Then there’s another 14 hour flight and eight more time zones to cross until touching down in Melbourne sometime tomorrow.
As far as flights go, this is an ugly one. But I’m feeling chipper!
Recently I did some Google trawling through both the traditional scientific literature and also the more controversial bio-hacking sphere. My goal? To see what can be done to ameliorate some of the damage that arises when you squish humans into a metal tube and hurtle them through 24,000km of stratosphere at 39,000 feet.
Here are what I have determined to be the biggest contributors to jet lag and some ways in which to combat them:
The commercial jet airplane is a very harsh environment for us delicate humans. Being in a completely sealed and insulated metal tube is great when you’re trying to maintain cabin pressure and not freeze to death or asphyxiate, but in most other ways it’s less than ideal.
Firstly the cabin pressure is far lower that what (most of us sea-siders) are accustomed to. The cabin altitude (equivalent altitude for the pressure inside the cabin) of commercial airplanes ranges from 1,800m to 2,400m. So my flight is akin to sitting on top of Mount Kosciusko (tallest peak in Australia) for 23 hours.
Being at altitude is very dehydrating because the air is not only very dry (typically 5-15% humidity in the cabin), but oxygen is more sparse so you need to breathe at a higher rate and therefore lose more moisture and electrolytes through exhaling.
Secondly, the air quality is poor: recycled bleed-air from the engines will only add to dehydration, not to mention spreading bacteria and other nasties from your fellow passengers. Confinement and human density have been a challenge to us since civilization. Airplanes are a great place to get sick.
Thirdly, the physical structure of the plane amplifies already elevated levels of solar and cosmic radiation, as you are less protected the higher up in the atmosphere you go. Then there is the EMF (electromotive force) pollution from all the wireless devices and on-board electronics concentrated in such a small insulated space.
As Dr Jack Kruse, neurosurgeon turned bio-hacker says about flying, it’s like putting a nice juicy steak in the microwave for a long time - it comes out completely dried up and tough. A similar thing happens to our body.
I’m no fear-monger and I’m definitely not going to stop traveling by air but clearly flying isn’t the healthiest thing you can do. So how can you mitigate some of the damage?
- Drink a lot of good quality, preferably fluoride-free, filtered or natural spring water before, during and after the flight.
- Resist the urge to drink alcohol and caffeine before and during the flight. In my personal experience, getting stuck into the free booze during flights makes for terrible jet lag.
- Bring a massive water bottle (like a Kleen Canteen) and keep asking the air hostess to fill it up for you. They allow empty water bottles through security these days. [Side note: since departing New York I’ve drunk over 6 liters (1.5 gallons) of water in 24 hours, and I still feel dehydrated].
- Rehydrate your skin often throughout the flight. I use coconut oil. [Added bonus - if the plane/airport food is totally inedible and I’m starving i’ll just eat some of the coconut oil out of my little carry-on tub].
A second, more unorthodox recommendation from famous bio-hacker and Bulletproof Coffee inventor Dave Asprey is to “ground” yourself during the flight. You do this by placing your bare feet on the metal part of the seats in front of you connecting it to the floor.
Airplanes are grounded for safety in case of lightning strike so Asprey posits that you can ‘earth’ yourself and get rid of some of the negative charge that accumulates in your body from being bombarded with EMF in flight (i.e. Kruse’s plane as microwave theory). I’m not sure how much science is behind this but I’m trying it on this trip nonetheless.
Additionally, once you land in your destination try doing some barefoot activity outside with your feet in contact with the earth. This could involve walking along path, park or beach, hiking a trail or even just doing some yoga in your back yard. Asprey says that just 20 minutes of this “earthing” is enough to shake off most of his jet lag.
I think this is the biggest obstacle in long-haul flights. Like hangovers, jet lag is mostly a combination of dehydration and a lack of quality sleep. Unless you’re in business or first class and can lie flat it’s pretty hard to get comfortable on a plane. Here are some tips that help for me.
Improving sleep potential:
- Get the best seat you can. It’s very hard to get upgraded these days from economy but if you ask nicely and the flight isn’t too full you can usually wing your way into an exit row or aisle. My first flight was quite empty so I asked at check-in if they could block off the two seats next to me. Qatar were happy to oblige so I had a full row to stretch out on and lie flat.
- Get yourself a quality sleeping mask and ear buds to cancel as much noise as possible. The free ones you get on long-haul flights are absolute rubbish. I found this (bra-looking) eye mask on Amazon for $10 and it works a treat.
- Give sleep preference over that movie or meal. You’re better off skipping a crappy plane meal or Vin Deisel movie in order to get some extra sleep.
- If possible try and align your sleep on the plane with the timezone of your destination.
- I personally take a prescription sleeping pill when I need to get a good 6-8 hours sleep on a long-haul flight. This is the only time in my life when I take sleeping pills and I think it’s worth it. Being 6’2 is great for the fashion runway… not so great for sleeping in an economy airplane seat!
Adjusting your circadian rhythm to the new time zone
Aside from dehydration and sleep deprivation the other key cause of jet lag is the change in time zone. The more time zones you cross, the longer it will take to adjust. However, here is a kind of hack to speed up this natural adjustment.
1. On the flight wake up at an appropriate morning time for you arrival destination.
2. If you do caffeine the morning would be a good time to have a coffee - perhaps a Bulletproof Coffee.
3. Once you have arrived get some light exposure to help reset your body clock. This is especially important first thing in the morning. Try and do some light exercise outside… barefoot!
4. Eat meals at the proper time. Favor healthy fats and limit sugar/starch during the day.
5. Incorporate a little bit of carbohydrate in the evening to help regulate cortisol and serotonin and the production of melatonin. E.g. half a banana with a teaspoon of honey if you tolerate carbs.
5. Try to stay awake until a reasonable bed time.
6. Supplement with 1-3mg of melatonin one hour before bed to help you get to sleep.
Do this for the first two or three nights until you have acclimatized to the new time zone. Do not take melatonin on a regular basis. It is a powerful hormone and should only be used very rarely so as not to interfere with it’s natural production in your body.
Some final tips
Airplane food is often highly processed, salty and heavy on the refined carbs. If possible bring some of your own food or at least snacks to help you stay diligent and resist all the junk… the little cardboard bread rolls, sugary yoghurt, milk chocolate and puddings.
Raw almonds or macadamias, 85% dark chocolate and coconut oil are nutrient dense foods that provide real energy and will help you get through your (traumatic) flight. When you’re cramped, cursing over the delays, fed up with the grumpy security staff and noddy-headed goons drooling on you from their window seat just eat some dark chocolate, whack your eye mask on and try to relax!
Another option is to use your flight as an opportunity to fast. I have done up to 24 hour fasts on flights before and if anything it really helped avoid jet lag.
I can’t emphasize how helpful it is to abstain from alcohol and caffeine during these long flights, as tempting as they are. Drink way more water than you think you need. The extra bathroom breaks are a good way to get you up and about.
When you aren’t sleeping on the plane, get up and move as often as you can. Be that annoying guy that loiters around the rear exit doing yoga stretches… oh wait, that’s me!
When you’re in the terminal walk around as much as possible and stand rather than sit. You’re going to be doing more than enough sitting on the plane so stretch while you can.
Being friendly and charming to the ground staff and flight crew can go a long way. Ask and ye shall receive! Whether it be getting a newspaper from business class, an extra blanket or even talking your way into the premier lounge at Doha airport (I just asked the transfer desk if they could help me out on such a long layover and they gave me a complimentary pass), I find that a positive attitude can get you a long way in an industry where customers are often grumpy and rude.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
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"Form a habit. Forge a lifestyle." - The Paleo Model
UPDATE: I arrived in Melbourne having travelled for nearly 40 hours. Yet after a solid night’s sleep and some barefoot activity the next morning I felt a million bucks. I had no issue adjusting to the new time zone and besides a tiny bit of brain fog on the first day I basically avoided jet lag all together. Flying the other way back to New York some three weeks later was even easier... I think it works!