The Neuroscience of Long-Haul Travel

Reducing the drag of jet lag

Posted Mar 07, 2010

I travel a lot each year, the kind that most people get anxious about, involving 10+ hr time changes. People are often surprised at how little this affects me and I am often asked to share my techniques. So I thought I'd take some time to write out what I have learned.

The truth is, on the first few long-haul trips I was exhausted and disorientated for days. Over a few years I started developing habits that made traveling long distances much easier. (Note - none of these habits involved any pharmaceutical or other kinds of drugs.) Speaking to other travelers, I began to see that many people had similar habits, which suggested that there may be something biological going on. The more I learned about the brain, the more these habits started to make sense. Here are some of the habits I use, and a little of the science behind them.

Focus on where you are
A study by Robert Coghill showed that the right dose of expectations can reduce pain at the level of a medically active dose of morphine. Expect pain to decrease (or increase) and it does. Coghill presenting this finding at the first NeuroLeadership Summit, and this finding has many implications way beyong managing jetlag, however it's very relevant here too.

When you travel, it's easy to expect to be tired, and this will impact your experience. So when you arrive in a new time zone, it's important to focus entirely on where you are. Pay attention to local signals, be in the time you are in. Expect to be awake and fully functioning even if you shouldn't be. This means being ultra-disciplined about an easy trap for a newbie: never think for a moment about the time at home and therefore how you should feel. As tempting as it is, this can kick in the wrong neurochemical processes and you'll soon find yourself nodding off in a meeting. Don't leave a watch, computer clock or cell phone with the old time - change everything, as soon as you're on the plane. Otherwise if it's 3am at home, and you know it, you expect to be tired, which makes you more tired. Nearly every traveller I have spoken to sticks to this rule and I think it's a wise one to follow.

The right hours of sleep are more important than the amount of sleep
Most business people are used to pulling an all-nighter here and there, and can therefore do okay on limited sleep. I find it's better to get only five hours sleep, and wake with the light, than to get eight hours and wake at two in the morning. Overall, you get back into the new timezone in several fewer days. This requires ‘taking the pain' the first and second night, by staying up past midnight. Waking with the light, as well as helping to reset your melatonin production cycles more quickly, means you're more likely to be tired at the right time again, which is later that night.

Staying asleep
The body has a startle reflex which reacts to any kind of perceived danger such as discomfort, cold or noise. If you're sleeping in new hours, whether on a plane or in a new country, this reflex tends to be more sensitive and you wake more easily. Once you wake up in the night during a new cycle, it's often very hard to get back to sleep. So the key to good rest is not just getting to sleep but staying asleep. On a plane, try earplugs underneath noise cancelling head phones, to trick your brain into feeling it's safe enough to sleep well. Warmth is safety and planes get cold, so wear more than you normally would to sleep on a plane. In a new place, again dress warmly and wear earplugs and you're more likely to sleep through.

Stay busy, especially in the dangerous hours
Stay busy when you get somewhere. Keep your attention away from your self and onto doing things, and keep your overall activity levels high, until you're ready to sleep late at night. High activation of your prefrontal region reduces the potential for winding down and noticing your tiredness levels. This helps minimize the lulls that can knock you out.

Keep your glucose levels up
I find that hunger makes jet lag much worse, whereas if I keep eating light meals, and don't get hungry at all, jet lag is far less intense. Hunger seems to make it all far worse. Research shows that every decision you make uses up a measurable amount of blood glucose, and if you're tired, this is probably more noticeable. Keep your food levels up when you land for the first few days and long haul travel seems to be much easier.

Find a way to laugh about the pain
Finally, there's no doubt that no matter what you do, the first couple of days in a significantly new time zone, everyone has a few hours of feeling poorly, usually in the late afternoon. The key is, if you complain about it, it makes it worse. The brain has a region that registers the ‘emotional component' of pain, which tends to increase the awareness of pain. When you hit a wall and feel strange, find a way to ‘reappraise' this feeling: alter your interpretation of the pain of tiredness. Reappraisal, or changing how you perceive an event, is one of the best ways of regulating emotions. One way you might reappraise jet lag is to imagine you've had a drink, and that the jetlag is just your brain feeling woozy from alcohol (that's my favorite approach.) Jacques Cousteau used to say that jetlag was his drug of choice, an unusual approach but it worked for him. Find another way to interpret the pain as something positive and the pain reduces.

Having said all that, it seems from conversations with other travelers that long-haul travel gets easier the more you do it. And while you might feel poor for a few days, the upside is often weeks of finer weather, new insights, or even getting smarter. Studies in 2009 showed that travel abroad was linked to an increase in creativity. Unfortunately, because negative events are easier to focus on than positive ones, we all tend to think that two days of pain is too much, and discount the weeks of fun that can also be had.

Happy (and safe) travels!