Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees

photo by patricia green-sotos in ubud, bali

It’s summer.

For some, this might involve a long trip across many time zones. Perhaps even to geography halfway around the world.

Yellow Flower Cafe at sunset, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Because of our overseas lifestyle, I have been flying internationally at least twice a year for the past 30 years. In the beginning, I ignored the concept of jet lag and simply acclimated with a lot of sleeping. It is easy for me to fall asleep on planes. When the engines rev up and white noise begins, I close the window shade and REM sleep takes over. After reaching destination, I sleep some more. Eventually, day and night realign.

Numerous tips have been written about preventing or overcoming jet lag. Some are helpful.

Suggestions such as a good night’s sleep before a long flight, over-hydrating by consuming more water than you want, and refraining from too much alcohol or caffeine. Other tips include not flying with a hangover [major hydration no-no] and immediately adopting the day/night schedule of your destination geography.

These days jet engines don’t automatically make me pass out, so I think about waking/sleeping hours on a plane differently. I diligently perform ankle circles and spinal twists in my seat. I get up to walk or stand. I drink many glasses of water. I take brief naps rather than sleep for hours at a time. All are decent behaviors for trying to align my body clock. But they never accomplish the whole thing.

Recently, I made a long flight from Paris to Singapore and Bali and back to Europe two weeks later. Sixteen hours of flight time each way with six hours of time difference.

My friend, Patricia, who travelled with me to a yoga retreat in Bali had two jet lag ideas that were completely new. The first came from a limited study done in 1998. It was quirky enough I wanted to believe its conclusion–exposing the back of your knees to light, particularly sunlight, in the first days after travel, alleviates jet lag.

An instant antidote! And perfectly timed as we had two recovery days in a hotel in Denpasar before the retreat began. Our base of operation was established immediately after breakfast in poolside lounge chairs. When knees overheated [front or back], we obligingly cooled them by sliding into the water. If boredom or cloud cover made it silly to continue this “therapy”, we went exploring.

retreat location, ubud, bali, by patricia green-sotos
our room in Ubud
our porch view

The other jet lag treatment she knew of was more medically aligned with the body’s circadian rhythms. It was the result of a hormone study by her physician brother on human cortisol fluctuation.

I emailed him after the trip to ask more about it. Dr. John replied, “Jet lag is hormone dislocation.” Translation: The body’s normal clock gets out of whack when you pass through multiple time zones.

“Your cortisol level surges each day at awakening. It is set to your biological clock and changes only reluctantly–about one hour per day per time zone. Hence the lag.”

At the opposite end of the day, when it’s time to go to bed, the brain produces melatonin and off to sleep we go. Cortisol levels rise again with the sun. The cycle continues.

Big time zone changes mixed with fluctuating biorhythms can play out dramatically in young children. Our son was six-years-old the first time we flew home to the U.S. after moving to Singapore. During an early dinner, we watched his head suddenly sag forward and plop down in the center of his plate. Sound asleep in mashed potatoes.

Dr. John suggests: “The fix [to jet lag] is in replacing the hormone [cortisol] at the right time of day. Hydrocortisone is safe and effective when you take it at 7:00AM local time for just three days. You can’t do it everyday, only with international travel. Combine that with melatonin [3-10mg] to help get you to sleep and you get the benefit both ways. Works like a charm.”

Take 20mg Hydrocortisone for three days only, at 7 AM local time, for international travel.

You need a medical prescription for oral cortisone and it may be challenging to find a physician willing to write one for jet lag, even in such a limited dose. You could try encouraging your physician with what Dr. John says: “Simple replacement dose is not the same as a treatment dose of prednisone which overpowers your own cortisol. It’s safe and effective.”

I have yet to use cortisone therapy for jet lag. Instead, I researched that back-of-the-knees-light-study from the ‘90s. It was debunked, not long afterward, as nonsense. I tried it anyway.

sunbathinhg (1)

After returning to Paris from Bali, I took 45 minutes each afternoon for a week to lie on the floor inside my dining room window and expose the back of my knees to sunlight. Instead of a jet lag daytime nap, I found that sunny-knee-time seemed to warm up my brain and nourish it, too. I was more alert, avoided the nap, and slept through the night.

Fact or fiction, back-of-the-knee sun exposure worked for me.

Regardless of suggestions for recalibrating your body clock, you can just live out jet lag and do nothing. Eventually, day and night cycles return to “normal” wherever you are.

Based on our son’s experience, it’s best to avoid falling asleep at the dinner table after traveling across oceans. Or, at least try to finish your meal so as not to drown in a pool of gravy.

patricia and wendy in double tree pose
ohm in flowers
rice field yogi trees

7 thoughts on “Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees

  1. Lovely, thank you.
    Michelle O’Brien – Managing Director – a good start in France – 8, rue de l’Exposition – 75007 Paris


  2. Perfect! Great pictures! (I recognized all of the spots and shots). Of course I believe in all of the strategies! 🙂 I would note however, 20 mg of Hydrocortisone might be JW’s recommended dose but it really should be more tailored to the individual. Just like any medical therapy: “the least amount to get the desired benefits.” (Think Insulin: each person takes a different amount according to their own personal need.) Personally if I take 20 mg I would be buzzing for 20+ hours. I only take 10 mg and found that to be my perfect dose. 10 mg of Melatonin to sleep. Bon Voyage!


  3. My initial “WOW” was for the pose…. then I was absorbed with your writing. Love your blog. I share it often and love the attention I get for sharing ( thank you very much). 🙂


  4. I’m reading your latest while in the Kalahari Desert, where the evenings are near freezing during the South African winter. Trying to stay warm in the desert seems much like all the jet-lag strategies you share, both perspectives counterintuitive. Your title “Sunning the Back of Your Knees” captured and kept my attention, reading from beginning to end– and to think, I know the author who believes in such things.


  5. A lovely piece with killer photography. Really like everything about this one…including the humorous ending. A perfect topic and sense of ease as the summer is now upon us. It’s an eccentric piece too, in that you are floating all these quick fixes for what is a biological issue–unless indeed sun on the back of your knees is truly that answer!


  6. What a timely post – It surely made me smile reading it…
    We’re at my mother’s cabin, in Canmore, in the Rocky Mountains–yes, those same Rockies.
    We picked Fiona up in Calgary yesterday and headed up here to celebrate Canada Day.
    She arrived from Beijing following 10 days in Ubud at the end of the school year. Turning around, literally in a day, she said her final goodbye to Beijing and boarded a flight for Canada.
    Fiona had just gotten up and we were discussing jet lag when your post popped up.
    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this latest entry!


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