Culture

You cannot escape jet lag, only embrace it

Learn to roll with the inevitable consequences, and the ways we will fail to adjust. You’re getting on a roller coaster, except this one wasn’t planned by anyone.

Someone has probably told you that, in order to combat jet lag, you should fight your urge to sleep and stay awake until it’s nighttime in your new time zone. This “resets” your sleep cycle, they say, and the next day you’ll be back to normal.

This is wrong. It is dangerous hubris. Your body was not built to speed around the Earth almost faster than sound, and you cannot change this simple fact through heroic force of will. An attempt to do so could be bad for your physical and mental health. In my experience, such folly can invite madness, ecstasy, terror, or even a visit from Satan.

However, just like humans do many things we were not technically built to do — like wear clothes, take drugs, or read — we can and will submit ourselves to jet lag. But it’s a serious condition, and we have to be mindful of its consequences. We must learn to love the insane, wonderful thing that it is, and swim in its deep weirdness if we are going to travel at all.

I don’t remember who first told me about this common jet-lag “solution.” But I remember that 12 years ago, when I began a life of increasingly frequent and stupid international relocation, I took it as gospel. And I remember the first time I realized this faith was a sham. It was 2009, a few days after returning to my newish home of London. I shot up like a bolt at 2 a.m. one night and felt the overwhelming desire to do something. I rode my bicycle all the way across town, past Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, places I would have never visited in the daytime. My body was hyper-sensitive — to the moon, to the light bouncing off of history, to the exercise. I felt as if I had discovered the universe for myself. It was magical.

Trying to outwit jet lag can invite madness, ecstasy, terror, or even a visit from Satan.

Other experiences with jet lag soon thereafter were deeply negative, especially those involving the attempt to act normal and “power through” fatigue that persisted even after the “reset” was supposed to be effective. The strange moments piled up over a decade, until I forced myself to research sleep science to understand what was happening to me. As I found out how, and why, jet-lag experiences are dependent on how far you’ve traveled and in which direction, it all started to make sense.

The body has two internal clocks regulating your desire (and ability) to sleep. One is called the homeostatic sleep drive, and it works like a stopwatch: it starts ticking when you wake up and accumulates sleepiness for every moment you're awake. A chemical called adenosine builds up when you're awake (caffeine is an adenosine blocker), but that's not important now. It starts at zero after a great, full night of sleep and keeps rising until you sleep again. The other clock, the circadian rhythm, is on a 24-hour cycle (technically, it's a bit longer for some reason). When it's nighttime, according to this clock, your body cools down, wants to sleep, and is far less capable of doing anything else.

Now, you cannot “reset” your circadian rhythm. You can only shift it slowly — about one hour per day, maximum — and that shift takes place entirely based on your exposure to light, not when you actually sleep.

The crucial thing is that these two clocks do not communicate with each other. You can be pumped full of adenosine because you haven't slept in a day, but if it's peak “daytime” in your circadian cycle (usually early afternoon — this is also when you will best perform at everything, from sports to mental tasks to emotional maturity) you will still have a difficult time sleeping. Or, even if you managed to sleep 10 hours recently, if you are in the middle of your “night” cycle, your body will still be tired, and cooler, and bad at waking activities. This is the contradiction at the heart of jet lag.

This is why you only experience jet lag proper when moving East or West across time zones, and the direction matters deeply. If you travel North to South, even if your flight is very long, say, from Norway to Zimbabwe, what you get is tired, or “travel fatigue,” the condition most online articles about jet lag actually describe. The solution is just to stay hydrated, eat right, and get to bed. It can be fixed overnight. Easy.

The second thing I learned is that it is very, very stupid to deprive yourself of sleep, and that most of us are already doing so. The demands of modern economies, the creation of cheap artificial light, and deep human ignorance about our own bodies have combined to create something like a global sleep-deprivation epidemic.

Scientists claim to understand what sleep is for, but they don’t, really. What they understand is what happens when you don't get enough sleep. Your memory, health, ability to process the world, and emotional balance all become seriously impaired, and fast. After one or two nights with less than seven full hours of sleep, more than 99 percent of people will experience serious deterioration in all of these, even if they don't realize it. Especially when they don't realize it. Almost everyone who claims they need less sleep than this is tragically wrong.

And so, what is the point of being awake so much? What are our stupid jobs, anyways? Especially for those of from the global class of people criminally privileged enough to destroy the environment with constant travel, work is often an exercise in futility. We do like what, marketing strategies for shoes? Trade stocks? Write for a website? Who cares. The world would probably be better off if we just didn’t. To deal with jet lag, you have to be keenly aware of where the internal body clock is, based on which direction you traveled, and how fast. You have to learn to roll with the inevitable consequences, and the ways we will fail to adjust. You’re getting on a roller coaster, except this one wasn’t planned by anyone. You might have to lean into it.

And you should prioritize rest, not frantic activity. In general, unless you are suffering from depression, you should usually err on the side of too much sleep.

what is the point of being awake so much?

“If there’s something known as too much sleep, we haven’t found it yet,” Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and author of Why We Sleep, which explains the state of contemporary sleep science and how the modern world has largely deprived us of it, told me.

Walker explained to me over email what many long-time travelers have figured out — “If you’re traveling West (“West is best” is the rule of thumb when it comes to jet lag), what you have to do is stay awake longer before you go to bed and most people can do that quite easily. When you travel East, what you typically have to try to do is to go to bed earlier than you would otherwise or earlier than your body clock would want you to do. Forcing yourself to go to sleep early is much more difficult than staying awake until later.”


There is no cure for jet lag. Melatonin pills, which contain the natural hormone that our bodies produce to help us sleep, may help you drift off but they won't make your sleep long or good or address the very common jet-lag problem of interrupted sleep.

Also, sleeping pills probably aren’t worth taking, for jet lag, or for anything. “Existing sleeping pills are minimally helpful,” Walker writes in his book, but one study performed on animals indicates that Ambien significantly weakens the brain’s ability to form memories while sleeping, one of the main purposes of lying down in the first place. Other large studies (of humans) indicate that people were significantly more likely to die (in one case, 4.6 times more likely) over a period of two to three years than others, perhaps because of increased risk of infection, cancer, or accident.

“Shouldn’t drug companies be more transparent about the current evidence and risks surrounding sleeping pill use?” Walker writes. “Unfortunately, Big Pharma can be notoriously unbending within the arena of revised medical indications. This is especially true once a drug has been approved following basic safety assessments, and even more so when profit margins become exorbitant.”

According to a seminal 2002 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, jet lag only really kicks in if you have moved across at least three time zones or more. And to say that moving from East to West is easier is a serious understatement.

After Westward travel, jet lag often comes in the form of a mysterious blessing, endowing you with power you had never expected. At times, I am so motivated and ebullient in the mornings with this jet leg that I feel everything in my life makes sense. It feels like drugs, uppers probably, so good that they don’t actually exist.

I wake up very early. But energized, and hungry. If I don't feel like going back to sleep, and just accept that, I can be bizarrely productive. I'll often be up at 4 a.m., read for two hours, then get out and start doing everything I have ever wanted to do in my life — more than I would if I weren't jetlagged at all. Feeling this way as I can watch the sun comes up, with the whole day ahead of me, has hugely positive psychological consequences. I feel different. I feel amazing. I have made great career decisions. I can win back over all those people I have offended.

Westward jet lag feels like drugs, uppers probably, so good that they don’t actually exist.

I am from California, which is, conventionally speaking, to the West of everything else. As a result, for more than 10 years now, my parents have gotten used to seeing a version of me at Christmas that doesn't really exist. By the time the whole family is up, I have already gone to the gym, picked up breakfast for everyone, and done chores. This is absolutely not how my life works usually (I wake up late and am lazy).

This makes sense if you think about the circadian rhythm. If you've traveled West across seven time zones, then that means that at 5 a.m., your body thinks it's noon. Biologically, what you have really done is stay up very late, and slept in, except that you get the physical feeling of a lie in and the knowledge you haven't missed out on anything.

And the even stranger thing is — there's usually no comedown. There's no punishment, there's no long-term reckoning. Yes, you begin to get very tired in the afternoon or early evening; you'll start to lose all motivation, and badly want to sleep. But there's usually no social or professional consequences for wanting to go home and get to bed at seven or eight.

And you won't be hungry for dinner at all, either — skip it! If you do want to stay up and do something, try to take an afternoon nap (30 to 90 minutes, max) and see if that buys you more time once the sun sets. Then, unless you intentionally restrict your exposure to light (which I suppose you could ) your circadian rhythms will gradually adjust to daylight wherever you are (remember, one hour per day). I often find that the mood boost I get stays with me for weeks afterwards.

But there is a dark inverse to Westward travel, and that is when you move five-to-nine time zones East.

I say quite seriously that you should prepare for this, physically and emotionally. It is going to be hard. It will probably be sad. It could get very weird, bordering on dissociation. You are going to be way less productive, you are going to be frustrated with yourself. When I am preparing for this kind of adjustment — and I mean a full adjustment, not just a short trip — I act as if I have just been diagnosed with a serious fever. I prepare some materials to read, some shows to watch, pack my house with snacks, and prepare to forgive myself for what I am about to do.

But keep in mind, you should only adjust if you have to.

“The body clock will not adjust if the stay in the new time zone lasts only a few days,” said Ben Edwards, an expert in chronobiology and environmental physiology at John Moores University in Liverpool who studies jet lag and its effects on athletes. “Therefore, travelers should arrange activities to coincide with daytime in the time zone they left (coincident with “body time”)” and avoid activities when your body thinks it’s night, he said, and agrees with the consensus that Westward travel is relatively easy.

When I do need to make the Eastward shift, what will happen is that, no matter how well I timed my first day or whatever, I will soon find myself wide awake from midnight until 6 a.m. It will only be at around 7 a.m. that I can sleep, and by 9 a.m. I will really want to sleep. If I try to force myself into deep sleep before sunrise, it won't work. If I try to rip myself out of bed and do something, anything, before noon, it feels like I am swimming in a thick, soupy, glass-covered swimming pool, and everything that enters my brain immediately dissipates into a shameful, confusing puff of smoke. I am anxious, scared, confused. My body is at low temperature, quite literally unprepared for any serious activities. Everyone wants me dead.

Recently my partner and I traveled from London to Hanoi (six time zones East) and made the grave mistake of arranging for someone to pick us up at 10 a.m. two days after arriving. I don't remember anything I saw, or what happened, but I still remember the deep terror I felt just looking at her, sitting in the back seat with me, while the world cracked into pieces around her head. The sensation is imprinted on my soul, like a bad acid trip. And all we did was move around the Earth 20 times faster than God ever intended.

But again, this makes sense biologically. If you move seven hours East, this means that at 10 a.m., it's 3 a.m. deep inside of you. In your normal life, you can probably stay up until 3 a.m. But if you are already fatigued from travel, then try to get to bed at your internal 8 p.m., toss and turn for hours only to get a tiny bit of sleep between your circadian 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and then try wake up for daytime activities, with the full light of the sun in your face, you will feel insane. I am being fully serious when I say I sometimes worry that jet lag, and my disparate lives in different parts of the world, have broken my brain into small fragments that can never be reconnected, but perhaps that’s a different essay.

(Oh hey also — have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? It feels like literal hell, which is why in the Middle Ages they believed that a demon had emerged from the hateful depths of eternal torture to sit on your body and terrorize you, and perhaps rape you. For all I know, they were actually right, and this is what is actually happening. If you try to heroically beat West to East jet lag, you are more likely to meet the devil.)

I sometimes worry that jet lag, and my disparate lives in different parts of the world, have broken my brain into small fragments that can never be reconnected.

There is no upside to any of this. After an Eastward journey, I feel groggy and worthless for at least a week, and then that feeling lingers even after I have adjusted, even if I do enough regular exercise to pump myself with feel-good chemicals.

I accept my fate in advance. I try to sleep when dusk falls, but if it doesn’t work (or if I wake up in the middle of the night) I just watch terrible crap on Netflix, eat terrible food (you will get really hungry in the middle of the night), and prepare for my real sleep from 5 a.m. to noon and close the blinds. Most importantly, I do not punish myself psychologically for my failures. I give myself days of this, knowing I’ll only be able to get things done (and not much) in the afternoon. I tell myself I’ve earned this.

I am lucky enough that I can sort of set my own work hours, so I don't accept any work or meetings before 1 p.m. Recently, a high-ranking Communist Party official (I can’t say in which country) wanted to give me a juicy, secret meeting one morning when I was feeling like this, and I said no. I knew from experience that if I showed up, I would have seemed nervous, unable to maintain eye contact. He would have found me deeply rude or deeply suspicious. It would have been very bad.

Now, what happens if you travel East across more than nine time zones? This gets strange again. If you have gone 10 time zones East, it is actually fine, because you can just act as if you went 14 time zones West, because, apparently, the Earth is actually a sphere and there is no such thing as East or West. We are finite beings, with severe cognitive and physical defects, incapable of understanding the world or escaping from the prison of the body. We might as well embrace it.

Vincent Bevins is a journalist in Jakarta. Justyna Stasik is an illustrator in Montreal.
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