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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Physician Anita Pee and Dr Andre Budihardjo on December 6, 2022

Natural Ways To Deal With Jet Lag

Jet lag is what happens when you travel across different time zones, throwing your body's internal clock out of whack. Here's how to restore balance and get rid of unwanted symptoms that accompany long distance travels.

Jet lag guy in airport min scaled

Many people travel during the holiday season, making them prone to jet lag. It occurs when your body responds to the different time zones and changes in your new environment.

In addition to feeling sick, dizzy, and unable to sleep, you may experience symptoms such as diarrhea, upset stomach, nausea, and fatigue.

Luckily, there are several things you can do to ease these symptoms naturally. Here’s how to overcome jet lag using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other holistic treatments.

What Is Jet Lag?

An image of a teal colored clock set to 5 am with a person waking up and performing morning stretches in the background.
Traveling long distances over different time zones can lead to disruptions in your circadian rhythm and internal sleep cycle.

Jet lag can cause a change in your circadian rhythm. It occurs when your body’s “internal clock” that regulates your sleep, hormones, and other bodily functions is disrupted.

Jet lag is caused by the sudden change in time zones when you travel across different time zones, causing confusion in your internal clock.

Your internal clock is guided by complex workings within your body. It also takes cues from the external environment, such as how much and when light enters your eyes. It will then send a message to your brain to decrease melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall and stay asleep.

Understanding TCM sleep mechanisms

To understand the sleep mechanism from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)‘s point of view, we must first go back to one of its foundations, the Yin and Yang principle. With yin representing passivity (descending motion) and yang symbolizing activity (ascent), the two forces might be complete opposites, but they are also complimentary. TCM uses yinyang to interpret many of its theories on health or various diseases and conditions, including sleep.

The ancient Chinese medical text, Lingshu, describes how yin and yang influence sleep. In TCM, the sleep-and-awake cycle is regulated by the continuous circulation of wei qi (protective qi). It is believed that wei qi travels in yang by day and in yin at night.

When yang is depleting, yin will be in fullness, leading to sleepiness. And vice versa; when yin is at its end, yang will be abundant, resulting in wakefulness. 

This process can also explain insomnia and its remedies. TCM views insomnia as the consequence of an excess of yang or Fire in the Heart and Liver. The Heart is thought to be the ruler of Shen, which is equivalent to the mind or spirit.

When there is too much yang or fire in the Heart, the Shen will get affected, which distresses the mind and causes emotional disorders like insomnia. This is why TCM physicians usually prescribe medicines that reduce the fire and nourish the yin when treating insomnia. 

Jet Lag Symptoms

A man with a face mask on leaning his head on the seat in front of him while sleeping on an airplane.
Sleeping on an airplane isn’t always easy. Try to prevent jet lag by getting your body ready for your trip before leaving.

Health experts and researchers agree that flying eastward generally causes more severe jet lag symptoms as it is harder for your body to go to sleep earlier than to stay up later.

Jet lag symptoms include one or more of the following: 

  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue 
  • Severe drowsiness and falling asleep during the day 
  • Insomnia
  • Poor concentration 
  • Headaches 
  • Digestive problems, such as poor appetite, constipation, or diarrhea 
  • Irritability or unable to enjoy what you’re doing 
  • Generally feeling out of sorts 

Tips To Help You Overcome Jet Lag

The good news is that while there is technically no cure, jet lag eventually resolves itself without medical treatment. However, you can do things to shorten the time it takes for your body to synchronize so that you fall back into your natural circadian rhythm.

Prepare for the time shift before you travel 

Before traveling, train your body to shift to the time zone you’re traveling to. For example, if your destination is 3 hours ahead of your home time zone, start winding down to sleep three hours earlier than usual, leading up to your travel time. 

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation shows that light flashes administered during sleep can influence the circadian rhythm and reduce jet lag, more so than continuous light (meaning dependence on natural daylight can be manipulated for phase-shifting). 

Prioritize quality sleep  

Make sure to prioritize quality sleep before, during, and after your travel time. Sleep is when your body rests and renews, so don’t skimp just because you’re traveling.

And yes, this means not watching too many in-demand movies on the flight’s entertainment system and making sure you get some good shuteye. 

Keep hydrated  

Staying hydrated ensures your body adapts to different time zones better when you put it through the stress of travel. Mild dehydration can happen when traveling and it worsens the symptoms of jet lag.

Drinking enough water can be harder when you’re rushing for your flight, so pay special attention. Avoid drinks that are dehydrating, like coffee and alcohol

Avoid heavy meals or new foods  

Your digestive system doesn’t need the extra burden when having to adjust to a new time zone. You’ll reduce some jet lag symptoms such as an upset stomach, poor sleep, and bloating if you avoid heavy meals or try new foods. Eat smaller, simpler meals with enough calories and nutrition. 

Keep moving

A woman performing leg stretches in an airport while waiting for her flight.
Try to stretch and move as much as possible to reduce unwanted symptoms during travel, such as fatigue, indigestion, and muscle cramps.

As much as possible, try to have adequate movement and exercise while traveling because it will help you sleep better. Walk up and down the cabin aisle to keep your circulation going optimally.

You can even do simple exercises in your seat, such as head rolls, neck turns, knee tucks and arm bends. 

Acclimate to the new time zone

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, try to be outside when it’s daytime, even when you’re tired. If there is a nearby park, have a gentle walk or sit on the grass there. Even sitting out on your hotel balcony would help your body acclimate to the new location.

As much as you can, try to sleep at your usual bedtime. You may consider a melatonin supplement to help you fall asleep but speak with your doctor first about potential side effects. 

How To Treat Jet Lag With TCM

According to TCM Physician Anita Pee, “Jet lag in TCM is understood as the body’s activities not being in sync with the rising and falling of the sun, in other words, the natural yin and yang rhythm of the day.”

As TCM is primarily concerned with restoring qi and balance, it offers many ways to help beat jet lag, such as acupuncture and herbs. TCM foods like the traditional essence of chicken are good to help your body heal. 

Acupressure massage for jet lag 

Physician Pee shares some acupoints that can help to relieve jet lag symptoms: 

Herbal remedies for jet lag 

Herbs are another TCM modality to consider. A meta-analysis published in the journal titled Frontiers in Pharmacology demonstrated that jujube seeds (Suan Zao Ren) work better than the placebo and are comparable to diazepam. The drug is usually prescribed as a relaxant to enable sleep.

If you wish to go the natural route, try adding an herbal sleep supplement to your nighttime routine. This can help balance your internal sleep cycle to reduce symptoms of jet lag. When it’s time to wake up, Cordyceps is a caffeine-free way to help reduce fatigue and boost energy levels during the day.

Below is a list of TCM herbs for your jet lag symptoms. As usual, consult a TCM physician on whether you and your children can take these herbal formulas. Certain dosages and herbs have varying effects on different body constitutions: 

  • Insomnia: Jujube seeds, arborvitae seed (Bo Zi Ren) or herbal formula Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan
  • Fatigue: Astragalus (Huang Qi) and atracylodes (Bai Zhu
  • Dehydration or dryness of skin, nose, and throat: Ghlenia root (Sha Shen), ophiogon tuber, (Mai Dong), and Solomon’s Seal Rhizome (Yu Zhu
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort, such as poor appetite and diarrhea: Bao He Wan and Huo Xiang Zheng Qi Wan

Jet lag is usually unavoidable when traveling long distances, but these tips and remedies can help you recover more quickly so that you can spend more time enjoying your trip. Bookmark this article so you can refer to it the next time you’re getting ready to cross time zones.

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