How to Handle Jet Lag

One of the worst side effects to travel would have to be jet lag1

In the unlikely event that you've never actually experienced jet lag, allow me to inform you as to what it feels like. You will be going about your business in the middle of the day, when suddenly, you will hit an invisible wall.  Words will stop making sense, all of the thoughts you've ever had will fall out of your head, and your skeleton turns to jelly. Even if, moments before, you had been fully engaged in a stimulating activity or an interesting conversation, you will instantly be overcome with complete ambivalence. A feeling of hopelessness washes over you. Nothing feels better than to stare straight ahead at nothing, and woe betide anyone who dares talk to you once this stage is reached.  The best thing for it is a dark, quiet room.

Alternately, you may find yourself awake in the dead of night racked with starvation-style hunger cramps which threaten to turn your abdomen inside-out.  Ignoring this feeling and trying to go back to sleep only results in intensifying pains akin to having your stomach chewed from the inside out by an army of tiny ferrets. Thus, having jet lag tends to feel a lot like having the flu, sleep apnea, insomnia, bipolar disorder, and a spastic colon all rolled into one.2

FUN! ... or not so much.

Over the years, I've witnessed various schools of thought regarding how to deal with jet lag.  Below are some of the more common approaches.

How to Handle Jet Lag:

Option One: Don't go on any trips. Although this solution may be mind-blowing in its elegant simplicity, there are--of course--downsides to this approach.  The most obvious downside to not going on any trips is that you will miss out on actually traveling. And let's be honest here. Traveling is just really, really fun.  

Option Two: Start adjusting your body clock well ahead of time. Beginning at least ten days in advance, incrementally adjust your sleeping schedule to match that of your target time zone. If this requires you to take ten extra days off work so that you can stay up all night and then sleep through the day in order to better prepare for your trip, then so be it. No price is too heavy to pay.

Option Three: Plan to ignore all symptoms and power through. Those of this school like to pretend that jet lag doesn't actually exist. My sister/roommate and I tend to adhere to this approach exclusively, although it doesn't always work out as well as we would hope.3 One trick to powering through is to plan to keep yourself busy enough that even if you hit that mind-melting wall of ridiculous exhaustion, you aren't in a place that actually allows you to succumb.4 Another trick is to keep food available at ALL TIMES.  If you are a guest in someone's home, plan to keep food in your room for emergency, dead-of-night munch-a-thons that won't involve clattering around in the kitchen and waking the rest of the house in your panic to appease the stomach-chewing ferrets.

The honest truth is that some people tend to suffer from jet lag more than others.  The only real way to know how badly you will suffer and how best to combat your symptoms is to conduct some field testing. I recommend a week each in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific in order to gather enough raw data for an effective analysis.

Therefore, I call upon you to turn in your leave-of-absence forms, liquidate your assets, and strike forth to see the world.

All in the name of science, of course.

1. Other adverse side effects include mysterious rashes, occasional intestinal distress, and having to unpack.
2. Or, as I like to call it, Acute Gastroapnespazinomnia.
3. Hence that one night in Shanghai during which she spent our entire dinner out with friends with her head down, fully asleep at the table in the midst of a busy restaurant. And that other time that I accidentally went forty-eight hours without sleep while flying cross-country to start an epic road trip.
4. Ergo our request on our most recent trip that our hostess take us out and drive/walk us around on the afternoon of our 7:00a.m.-arrival day so that we would't be in bed by 3:00p.m. local time and then fully awake and ready for a new day by midnight. We ended up being really glad to be out and about that afternoon, not only because of the lovely walk and chat we had in the beautiful afternoon sun, but also because it was during this walk that we witnessed a city bus drive directly into a bush shelter, much to the chagrin of the bus driver and the shock of the bystanders.


  1. I've used melatonin with pretty good results.

  2. Of course, jet lag does allow you to excuse any nonstandard behavior with, "Sorry, it's the jet lag talking." Naturally, this only works if you have recently been traveling. Otherwise you just look nonstandard AND silly.


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