Okay. Let's talk about "jet lag," and more importantly, one of the simplest ways to avoid, or at least ameliorate, it's effects on the human body.

The Cause of Jet Lag

The cause of jet lag is a disruption in the human body's circadian rhythm, which is better explained in other nodes, but basically involves hormones, the brain, and sunlight interacting to produce an internal "body clock" that dictates when people become tired and how much.

Actually to be perfectly truthful, what I just said is a lie. Jet lag is really caused by the artificial human construct of "time zones" and the annoying human custom of "meetings" for which we must be "on time." Without these we could just go to sleep and wake up whenever and our bodies would gradually adjust through exposure to sunlight. But if I had only told you that it wouldn't really help you wake up the morning after your flight to Mongolia, now would it?

As for other purported causes of jet lag, such as alcohol consumption at altitude and shitty airplane food, I think it would be apropos to ask yourself: Are these really causes of jet lag per se, or are they just things that would make anyone feel like crap under any circumstances, and even moreso when combined with jet lag?

How to Defeat Jet Lag

And now the important part of this writeup - simple strategies to avoid jet lag. Yeah, yeah, of course you should drink water, get up and walk around the plane, take a shower, avoid alcohol, blah, blah, blah, but these are things I would hope you would do anyway. Otherwise you are a dirty, fat, drunken, thirsty bastard, and that's just gross.

So let's think logically about jet lag. Quickly we can see that there are three obvious facts...

Fact #1 - You are going to be tired.

Get used to it. Anyone who thinks they are going to get up at 4 am, catch a bus to a distant airport, wade through security checks, fly 18 hours on three planes to Ulaanbaatar, wrangle through customs, and navigate a sea of goats in an autorickshaw to a stone-age hotel and then take a homeopathic pill or something and be good as Sunday morning is probably on some sort of hallucinogen.

Fact #2 - It's a lot easier to stay up late than to go to bed early.

If you take even a few moments to contemplate your own personal experience, you will quickly realize that this is true - it is much easier to stay up late when you are tired than it is to fall asleep when you aren't tired. This is the real reason why it is easier to fly west than it is to fly east. Because of the way time zones work, when you fly west you are effectively flying backwards in time. This means that you will have to stay up longer to go to bed at the locally correct time. Meanwhile, when you fly east, you are effectively flying forward in time, meaning that you have to go to bed earlier than your body wants to, to get on the local schedule.

Fact #3 - Tiredness can work against you, but it can also work for you.

This "fact" is the key to minimizing jet lag. Jet lag messes you up because it makes you tired at the wrong time. To defeat jet lag, you have to create a situation in which you are really tired at the appropriate time. The simplest way to do this is to remain awake for a long period of time leading up to the new local time you want to go to bed. You will not surprisingly find it rather easy to go to bed at this new time, because you are so damn tired.

This strategy is comparatively easy to do flying west. Do everything normally, and try your best not to fall asleep on the flight. Fortunately, this is not too difficult, given they way they cram you in on those sardine cans known as the modern airliner, and the increasing variety of in-flight entertainment options, such as playing solitaire on the seatback entertainment system, viewing some Freddie Prinze Jr. movie three times, or watching Matt Lauer babble pretaped "news" on the "NBC skymagazine."

When you arrive at your destination, resist the temptation to crash immediately. Instead, set a target time that you want to go to bed - 9 or 10 pm local time is good one - and make yourself stay up until that time. Again, this shouldn't be too hard, as you will be busy appreciating the amazing sights of your new surroundings, such as goats and autorickshaws.

Here you will encounter...

Fact #4 - Most people cannot sleep for more than 12-14 hours at a stretch, no matter how tired they are.

You will wake up a little late the next morning, but from then on, you will be basically on the new time zone's schedule. Going to bed on the early side the next few nights will help. Sure, you will be a little tired in the day, but nothing compared to the full-on jet lag caused by crashing in the middle of the day and waking up in the middle of the night for several days. Refer to Fact #1.

Going east is a little trickier, because you may have to go to bed earlier than your body wants to, or else face the possibility of having to stay up a really long time to make the strategy outlined above work. The solution here is to wake up super early the day of your flight, again to create the requisite tiredness at the target time you wish to go to sleep. Depending on the length of the flight and the time difference, a trick that has often worked for me is staying up really late or all night the night before the flight, which seems counterintuitive, and contradicts the common advice to "get a good night's sleep before a big flight," but has worked wonders when I have to go to bed 6 hours before my body wants to.


To sum up, here are some basic steps you can take to minimize the effects of jet lag. In all cases, the main idea is to adjust to the new local sleep schedule as quickly as possible, by intelligently managing your own exhaustion.

  1. Plan Ahead - Know your flight time and the time difference between your current location and your destination. Set a target time of when you want to go to bed at your destination, and stay up until then. Most people stay awake for 16-18 hours a day. A good guideline is to have been awake another 6-8 hours beyond this (i.e. about 24 total hours) before your target bed time. Plan to stay awake or wake up earlier accordingly.
  2. Rest Up Before You Leave - With the possible exception of the night before, try to get a full night's sleep at the normal time for several days to weeks before you leave. This will ensure that you won't have accumulated sleep debt which will kill your attempts to remain awake on the plane or in the hotel until the new target bedtime. Don't do what some people do and try to readjust to the new time zone by going to bed early or staying up while still at home. This is really hard to do, not to mention impracticable for most people who, say, have a job or a life.
  3. Stick to the Plan - Sack up and stick to your plan. The people who have the most problems with jet lag are the people who have no willpower and get stuck in a cycle of crashing whenever they get tired and then go party all night because they can't fall asleep, only to crash all day again the next day, all the while moaning about why they feel like shit due to "jet lag." Stay up until it's time to sleep and wake up when it's time to wake up (even if it means you have to watch that handsome devil Freddie Prinze for hours on end). In the end you will still have to do something that's a bit difficult, but you will feel much better much sooner.