23 September 2012

How to Prevent Jet Lag: A Remedy Reviewed

Before our recent trip to Belgium and Amsterdam, I decided to try an Ayurvedic remedy to prevent jet lag. Typically whenever I fly long distances with more than five hours of time difference, the first couple days are really rough. My whole body feels incredibly heavy, it's difficult to focus my mind, and I get dizzy. Since we often do trips that are "three days here, three days there," being in this state can really impact my enjoyment of the new scenery! Here's my story and assessment of how well this simple Ayurvedic remedy worked for me.

How to Prevent Jet Lag
The remedy I tried was from the book, "The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies", by Dr. Vasant Lad. Dr. Lad attributes jet lag to an imbalance of vata in the body, specifically excess vata. (For those not familiar with Ayurveda, vata is one of the three doshas or constitutions, is represented by the element air, and is characterized as light, dry, cold, and mobile. Given that the activity of flying has many similarities with this dosha, one can see how balance might be tipped in the vata direction when traveling.) The goal with this remedy is to reduce vata to bring the body back into balance.

Dr. Lad's remedy consisted of three parts:
  • Taking 2 capsules of ginger with a cup of water an hour before flying
  • Drinking 2-3 cups of water at intervals of 1-2 hours while flying, and avoiding caffeine
  • When arriving, rubbing warm sesame oil on the scalp and the soles of feet, and drinking 1 cup of hot milk with a pinch of nutmeg and ginger

How I Used the Remedy
Unfortunately in the rush to pack, I didn't get the ginger capsules but I had ginger, so instead I cut a few big slices and ate it raw. I know that may sound gross, but I'd done it before for a cleanse and I got kind of used to it. The only challenge was whether to eat it before flying at all, or just flying the long flight (we had only an hour or so flight to JFK and then a 7 hour flight to Brussels). I decided to wait and eat it right before the long flight.

I always drink lots of water and avoid caffeine, so that part was easy. I'm not sure whether I did it at intervals of 1-2 hours, but every time my water bottle was empty, I asked the flight attendant for a refill.

Before dinner, I started my hunt for hot milk, and found it in the Jazz Cafe at Hotel Navara, where we were staying in Brugge. The bartender didn't ask any questions as I happily poured my Ziplock baggie of ginger and nutmeg into the cup. I will say I did much more than a pinch, and probably would have had a smoother drink had I used less. Still, it was very tasty (and I don't usually do dairy, especially whole milk)!

Before bed, I rubbed (room temperature) sesame oil into my feet and scalp. I suppose I could have run the container under hot water to warm it up, but I didn't.

There was an optional step that advised travelers to drink tea made of equal parts chamomile, mint, and jatamansi, but I didn't do this. I didn't have time to get the loose tea, and wondered if it might invite inquiry at security.

How Well the Remedy Worked
For reference, our first flight left Boston around 4 pm EST on Friday August 31. We boarded our connecting flight from JFK around 7 pm EST that same day, arrived in Brussels Saturday September 1 around 9 am CET, and then spent a couple hours getting to Brugge via the train.

I didn't set any expectations up front about what I expected from the remedy, which makes it a little more difficult to gauge now that I'm home. But I will say this: my husband voiced his tiredness and overall readiness for bed hours earlier than I felt the need to sleep. At 8 pm CET on Saturday we decided to turn in, and I was up reading for about an hour after he'd already gone to sleep. I did fall asleep easily, but woke at 1 am, getting confused about the time and doing a half hour workout in the hotel gym before I realized it was two in the morning! Slightly embarrassed (with no one to witness it), I went back to bed and slept like a baby. The following day I felt fine and we went to bed at a normal time (somewhere between 9-10 pm CET), but I woke again at 1:30 am CET. I intentionally went to the gym this time, hoping to repeat the success of the prior day. Unfortunately, this time my workout backfired and I ended up sitting up until dawn and reading books on my iPad, because I was too wound up to return to sleep. That day of course I was very tired, but the rest of the trip I was fine.

What Traditional Medicine and the Scientific Community Says
  • The medical community understands jet lag to be a disruption of the body's natural circadian rhythms, which is in line with the core principles of Ayurveda. Doctors offer similar advice about staying hydrated with water and avoiding caffeine when flying.
  • Drinking warm milk is typical grandmotherly advice, but the belief that it's the tryptophan in this beverage that makes one sleepy has actually not been proven. Rather, like a warm mug of chamomile tea, the medical community only references that the act of drinking something warm and soothing comforts us and therefore helps with relaxation before bed. So drink up the milk and/or the tea, taking it in with all your senses. (Which by the way, is another very Ayurvedic thing to do!)
  • Ginger is typically associated with relieving an upset stomach and aiding in digestion. In Ayurveda it has many reported benefits, including being good for lubrication of the joints and for circulation, which could be helpful when one is seated in a cramped airplane for hours. (Stretching regularly, of course, is also recommended.) WebMD mentions ginger as a way to treat muscle soreness and low back pain, likely because of its ability to reduce inflammation. I can see how that would be useful after sitting in the airplane seats, which don't appear to have been designed for anyone I know.
  • Another "non-FDA approved" aspect of this remedy is the topical use of sesame oil. Ayurveda recommends sesame oil quite a bit, especially for self massage to promote general health. There are a few studies that show the topical use of sesame oil might be "useful," particularly as an ingredient for alleviating knee pain from osteoarthritis and inhibiting the growth of malignant melanoma. Unrelated I know, but if there's some evidence circulating for such conditions (which in my opinion, are much worse than something like jet lag!), I don't doubt sesame oil's power. It's also had many uses throughout history. Plus, who doesn't love a massage?

My Blog, My Soapbox
Like anything else, there are conflicting viewpoints about whether techniques like the Ayurvedic jet lag remedy I described above really work. Without scientific research, many such remedies are looked upon with skepticism. Here's my personal view:
  • these remedies have been around for thousands of years and are in line with nature
  • more scientific studies are being conducted about yoga and meditation, showing they really work--I wouldn't be surprised if in the future, many more "unproven" techniques are supported by data. I'd rather not wait, and experience them for myself in the present.
  • many of them are easy enough to try (though you may have to shop around for supplies)
  • given the list of side effects listed for prescription and over-the-counter medications these days, I don't worry much about taking herbs
  • whether its a placebo effect or not, if it works for me, I'll continue doing it
  • if it doesn't work for me, I'll try something else, no big deal!
The caveat of course, is if one is sensitive to certain things, has existing medical conditions that require medications with which herbs might interfere, or is worried about side effects. One should always talk with their health care providers about what they're doing to make sure a remedy is safe to explore (but don't be surprised if they don't think it will actually help!).


  1. Interesting read Jen - especially as it looks like I need to fly to Pretoria next week to present - so good timing, thanks! Alan

  2. Very informative article Jen, thank you