I used to dread travelling to other continents because of terrible jet lag, with symptoms lingering for at least a week after every long-haul flight. Without exaggeration, I always felt like I had severe motion sickness and couldn't focus on work or train properly because I was nauseous, sleep deprived, bloated and generally miserable.
And as much as I longed to see my family after the two years of being locked away from the rest of the world, I wasn't looking forward to that awful feeling. When I started researching science on avoiding jet lag and travel fatigue, I found a webinar on the Exercise and Sport Science Australia website covering this topic, which got me excited.
I learnt that jet lag and travel fatigue are mainly caused by a misalignment between the circadian rhythm (aka the body clock) and new destination time after rapid travel across more than three time zones, with sleep deprivation also playing a big part in the daytime tiredness and impaired physical and mental performance. Other factors include low air quality, low hypobaric pressure, vibrations and noise on a plane, nutritional insufficiency of the aeroplane food, lack of movement and sleeping in awkward positions, to name a few.
Jet lag usually disappears when the circadian systems resynchronise to the new light-dark cycle, which takes approximately one day per time zone crossed when travelling to the east and half a day per time zone when travelling to the west. Eastward travel is much tougher as the circadian rhythm needs to advance.
Using your flight itinerary (time zones crossed, travel direction and length of stay), core body temperature minimum and individual chronotype, you can calculate how to gradually shift your body clock to prevent or minimise jet lag and travel fatigue symptoms. This is achieved by seeking and avoiding light at certain times of the day in combination with exercise and training, adjusting your sleep schedule by 30-60min per day and incorporating naps at specific times.
Besides tuning the body clock to the new time zones, you can implement other simple strategies during and post travel to help minimise the symptoms.
While travelling, you should steer clear of alcohol and caffeine and drink lots of filtered water to keep you hydrated. Sleep at your usual time window (night-time at the place of departure) and practice good sleep hygiene, which involves minimising blue light (avoid screens or wear blue blockers) and using an eye mask and earplugs when sleeping. Bring your inflight meals that are nutritious and gentle on your digestion.
Once at a new destination, besides adjusting your circadian rhythm, you should
- Keep practising good sleep hygiene, such as avoiding screens, big meals, and alcohol before you hit the sack.
- Enjoy your coffee to perk you up but avoid caffeine 6 hours before scheduled bedtime.
- Align mealtimes with new local times.
- Avoid big meals and have little frequent snacks instead to reduce the risk of jet lag induced stomach upset. Chief Collagen bars are ideal as they contain lots of gut-soothing collagen and no stomach-irritating ingredients such as sugar, artificial additives, gluten, and dairy. They are high in protein which will help to boost your alertness.
After completing the webinar, I tried to calculate my own travel plan but found it too complicated and reached out to Peter Fowler from RECOVERY PROJECT to help me out.
My travel plan included when to go to bed and wake up, when to seek and avoid light, when and how long to nap, when to drink coffee, and how much of it. I stuck to it 100% as I was intrigued to see if it actually worked. It was challenging at times; for example, when I landed in Australia at 5 am, I was not allowed to go to bed until midnight and then had to stay in darkness until 9 am while all I wanted to do was go to bed early and run at sunrise.
All the effort was worthwhile, though. It was the first time in my life that I had no jet lag going to and from Europe. I was a little tired on day one but felt energetic as usual from day two onwards. I had no nausea, bloating or insomnia. Without exaggerating, it was a life-changing experience for me, and I'm never travelling long distances again without a jet lag plan.
The lingo explained
The tendency for someone to be a morning-type, an intermediate-type or an evening-type person with a preference to sleep at a specific time as determined by genetics, environmental, and age-related factors
An internally generated biological cycle or rhythm of physiological processes recurring naturally in the absence of time-givers lasting approximately 24 h that external time-givers can modulate. The term is derived from "circa diem" meaning "approximately a day."
Core Body Temperature Minimum
The daily low point of the circadian rhythm of core body temperature correlates with the lowest levels of alertness.
Co-founder, Nutritionist, Exercise Physiologist
Managing Jetlag and Travel Fatigue in Athletes
Practical Tips to Manage Travel Fatigue and Jetlag in Athletes