Published: November 9, 2021

chinese herbal medicine for jet lagLong-distance air travel is notorious for being inconvenient and uncomfortable, but its disruptive effects can last long after disembarking. Travelers who cross multiple time zones often find themselves struggling with jet lag upon arrival, putting a damper on what was supposed to be a productive work trip or exciting vacation.

Jet lag is a modern malady. For the originators of Traditional Chinese Medicine, who predated the invention of the airplane by centuries, there was no reason to discuss treatment approaches in medical literature or in oral lessons passed from master to student. However, today’s TCM practitioners have found many ways to apply ancient wisdom to the concerns of contemporary life.

What Causes Jet Lag?

Put simply, jet lag is caused by a mismatch between your body’s typical daily rhythms and a new time zone. This temporary sleep problem can occur whenever you travel across time zones, but it is most likely to occur when you cross more than three.

When you travel a significant distance from home, your internal clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle is not in sync with your destination. This disruption, in turn, affects numerous other body functions, such as hunger and elimination habits. Your body eventually adjusts to the change in environment, but it takes time.

The more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to feel jet-lagged. You’re also more likely to experience jet lag when you fly east (and “lose” time) than when you fly west (and “gain” time).

How Does Jet Lag Affect the Body?

Symptoms of jet lag usually appear within a day or two of travel. They are likely to be worse or longer-lasting the more time zones you’ve crossed. The most common symptoms of jet lag include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Early waking
  • Fragmented sleep
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Memory lapses
  • Reduced physical function
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Mood changes
  • A general feeling of being unwell or rundown

A healthy internal clock is critical for the overall health of the body. If you’re a frequent traveler or jet lag has an especially strong effect on you, you may benefit from seeing a specialist who can help you prevent or minimize these symptoms.

The Western Medical Perspective on Jet Lag

Discussions of jet lag in Western medicine center around “circadian rhythms.” This is essentially another name for your internal clock. Your circadian rhythm aligns with the 24-hour day, ensuring you are alert during the day and sleep well at night. This helps you remain in peak physical and mental health.

Though this is what they are best known for, circadian rhythms don’t just tell your body when to sleep and when to wake up. They also affect various other body processes, such as your appetite, hormones, mood and body temperature. The circadian rhythms of all these systems are synchronized with a master clock in your brain.

Your body sets your circadian rhythms naturally, guided primarily by that master clock. But environmental factors also play a role. For example, when light enters your eyes, your brain receives the message that it should stop producing melatonin (a hormone that helps you sleep) and start producing cortisol (a hormone that increases alertness).

Traveling to a new geographic location, where sunrise and sunset occur at different times than your body is used to, disrupts your normal cycle so that sleep and wakefulness no longer align optimally with night and day.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective on Jet Lag

TCM also recognizes an internal body clock. The Chinese body clock is divided into 12 two-hour intervals that illustrate the cyclical ebb and flow of energy throughout your body. During a 24-hour period, qi passes through each organ system sequentially: the gallbladder, liver, lung, large intestine, stomach, spleen, heart, small intestine, bladder, kidney, pericardium, and san jiao (aka triple burner).

According to TCM, organs are their strongest and most capable during the two hours when they have this concentration of qi. The time opposite each organ’s peak, when the flow of qi is “furthest” from the organ, is considered its weakest energetic point. This constant fluctuation between strength and weakness reflects one of the main underlying principles of TCM: balance.

TCM theory suggests that embracing the Chinese body clock can help you optimize your body functions. For example, 3-5 PM (when the lung’s energy is weakest) may not be the ideal time for a strenuous workout, and 7-9 AM (the peak period for the stomach) may be the best time for a filling, nutritious breakfast.

This cycle remains the same, even while traveling, which means your activities become desynchronized with your internal clock and optimal bodily function. The TCM approach to treating jet lag focuses on guiding your body back into sync with the rhythm of nature.

5 Chinese Herbal Medicine Products for Jet Lag

A TCM practitioner may recommend a variety of herbal Chinese products to restore balance inside the traveler’s body as well as between the body and the environment, such as:

  • Xiao Chai Hu Tang (modified) — for Shang Han Shaoyang patterns, reducing inflammation, stimulating immune function
  • Suan Zao Ren Tang — for insomnia, sleep disturbance, fatigue
  • Jia Wei Xiao Yao San (modified) — for fatigue, irritability, GI issues
  • Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang — for qi stagnation, blood stasis syndrome
  • Bai He Ye Jiao Teng porridge — for insomnia, disturbed sleep, generalized weakness or soreness

Consult With a Licensed Practitioner for Personalized Formula Recommendations

For frequent travelers, knowing more about natural jet lag remedies can make long-distance trips more enjoyable and less disruptive to overall health. Consult with a licensed practitioner or herbalist before taking any Chinese herbs. By understanding how your body reacts to traveling, your practitioner can customize a regimen of authentic Chinese herbal products that fit your pattern.

For help finding a TCM practitioner near you, please get in touch with the KPC team.


*Please note: These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is not intended to suggest specific treatments for patients or that any supplements mentioned prevent or cure diseases or problems. Before taking any herbs, all patients should discuss their options with a licensed practitioner, including any other medications the patient is currently taking, as there may be contraindications between pharmaceuticals and herbs.

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