How to beat jet-lag: Before, during and after the flight

Anyone who has ever hopped a plane to an exotic location some six, ten or fourteen time zones away will know that the pure energy and excitement of the trip can be quickly and painfully eclipsed by exhaustion, confusion and ultimately a totally screwed up sleep schedule for anything from a few days to a few weeks.  There is nothing worse than looking out the window of your beachside bungalow to the sun, waves and giggling hoards – only to crawl under a light sheet in the sticky heat and sleep the day away, then go in search of something like breakfast at 9 pm and try to figure out what to do with yourself for the dark, sleepless hours.

How can I avoid or reduce the ill effects of jet-lag?

Here are a series of tips that I have collected over the years, including during my latest flight last week from Stockholm to Seattle (nine hour difference), where I would say I was fully over the lag within about 36 hours – a new personal record!

Before You Go

  1. Schedule evening arrival flights. I love sleep. I can force myself to sleep much more easily than I can force myself to be awake. Because of this I try to book flights that arrive some time between about 4 pm and midnight, if it is economically feasible.  This way I have just enough time to find my hostel or hotel, get my feet on the ground, have something to eat and then pass out from utter exhaustion. For those that are less cat-like than myself, booking a morning or day-arrival flight might be more beneficial – some prefer to get out, have a good walk around the city and do some exploring right off the bat. Find out what works for you and try to book similar flights whenever possible – it will help you develop a lag-reducing routine.
  2. Sleep!  We have all done it: “Oh, I’ll just stay up all night partying and sleep on the plane.” It is a travellers right of passage. I have shown up to the airport still drunk, on two hours of sleep and inexplicably without my glasses: and trust me… this did not go well.  Even worse since it turned out I was at the wrong airport. Do this once, then never do it again.  It is stressful and exhausting, and on-the-plane-sleep is not equal to in-your-own-bed sleep, no matter how easily you conk out in those little seats.
  3. Be normal.  This is an expansion on the previous tip.  Don’t try to “pre-lag” yourself (i.e. switch to the new time zone before you’ve even left home).  I know, it sounds good in theory, but it just confuses your body even more than it will be anyway.  You’ll be there soon enough: eat, sleep and relax as you normally do while you still can.  Be well fed and well rested pre-flight, don’t deplete your energy for adjustment before you’ve walked out the front door.  Also – start drinking LOTS OF WATER.

On The Plane

  1. Drink water.  Now… DRINK MORE WATER!  I know, I know, you really don’t want to be constantly running to the toilet on that 10 hour flight. Everyone sitting in your row will hate you.  The toilet is disgusting by hour four in the air.  I know.  But you will feel so much better when you get back to Earth, it will be worth it. When the stewardess comes around I usually order two drinks – an OJ and a water.  They are always happy to pour you two. And did you know that during that quiet, dark simulated sleeping time they always have a tray of water and juices in the galley?  There’s also snacks there.  Check it out next time.  In addition to keeping hydrated, those constant trips to the toilet have the added bonus of keeping your blood moving, which can decrease the risk of DVT (which is actually way more common and dangerous than you think!).  So – if you do nothing else – DRINK WATER!
  2. Don’t drink alcohol. Woah – what?!  You’re on vacation!  You shelled out over $1000 for this flight, and goddammit you’re getting your moneys worth out of it!  Naturally, that means enjoying every single free drink they offer you. While all other travel perks are being cut, most long haul carriers still offer unlimited free booze, even in cattle class. But this screws you up on the ground, remember?  We’ve all had beer. We’ve all had wine. And we’ve all had a hangover.  Did you know that the aviation rule of thumb is that one on the ground equals three in the air?  Two beers with your in-flight meal is like a night of moderate drinking out with buddies, as far as what it does to your body.  When you are trying to keep your body fine tuned and in working order this is a recipe for disaster: it screws up your sleep, makes the sleep you manage to get less restful, dehydrates you and can give you a mid-day hangover (when you consider the time difference).  I personally have found that, all other factors excluded, just by keeping my drinks down to one (if I have pre-flight jitters) or zero will decrease my jet-lag recovery time by at least a day.  Getting the most out of that ticket price will cost you time on the ground, and even on a budget your time is money!  Drink water instead.
  3. Avoid caffeine. Caffeine is wonderful, and most of us have it at least once a day. But unless you have a serious addiction, skip it while in the air. Caffeine tosses your body into ups and downs that are better to avoid when you’re setting a new rhythm.  Furthermore, that lay-over latte is reallllllyyyy tempting, especially when you have a couple hours to kill, you’re getting sleepy and Starbucks offers free wifi. But try trading it for a water (!), some fruit or a granola bar – a small snack will keep your body sustained for a little longer than an espresso shot – and every small bit helps.
  4. Change your watch/phone to the new time zone ASAP. I usually switch my phone clock once we’re in the air, and try to think as if I am in that time zone already.  It’s noon – I should have something to eat.  It’s 10 pm, I should be getting sleepy.  If you think of what you should be doing it is much easier to actually do it.  Leaving your watch on your home time zone and realising it is 4 am when someone is offering you dinner is a surefire way to give your body a pass to fall asleep in your mashed potatoes.
  5. Nap. If you can catch some Zzzs on the plane: do it. This is mostly impossible for a lot of people, but if you can manage even a couple ten minute naps along the way you will be able to stay up a little longer when you hit the ground, which is key.

On The Ground

  1. Drink alcohol.  Um, wait – what?  What about rule #2 above?  This one should be taken with a grain of salt.  This works for me, it may not work for you.  This is my back-up trick.  If it is 6 pm and I am fading fast, then I default to my last resort: a steady stream of beers. I get energetic when I drink, and if three beers can keep me up till 9 or 10 at night (especially on night one) it will help in the long run.
  2. Drink water. Never stop drinking water.
  3. Get outside. Turn your face to the sun, get some Vitamin D, and let your brain decide for itself that now it’s day time and you should be awake. Being inside a plane is disorienting enough, don’t coop yourself up inside a artificially illuminated building once you’re released into the real world, unless you have no choice.
  4. Don’t watch movies or read books once you land.  Keep on your feet, keep your blood moving and don’t you dare curl up under a warm blanket and think you can weather a two hour movie.
  5. Set an alarm. If you decide you must nap, limit it to less than an hour, no matter what. If you let that nap drag into ten hours of sleep in the middle of the day then you are going to have a hard time in the coming days. Likewise, if you are actually having a proper night-time sleep, decide when you much be up by. Odds are you’ll be up pretty early anyway, but the body does strange things when it is lagged, and 14 hour sleeps are not unheard of – especially after 25-30 sleepless hours in the air.
  6. Eat. Even if you aren’t hungry before you go to bed, have a snack. The stomach gets jet-lagged too, and it is harder to adjust your nourishment routine than you might realise.  I often feel I can sleep through the night, then an inexplicably awoken at 2..30 in the morning wanting nothing more than a giant bowl of pasta and a smoothie.
  7. Book a single room. For the night you arrive splurge a bit a get some privacy. I find this results in more comfort in my already mildly disorienting surroundings, and as a result it is a bit easier to sleep sound. I’ll probably wake up at weird hours wondering where I am, but this is less disconcerting than waking up, wondering where I am, and if that person speaking a weird language is rustling through his luggage or mine.
  8. Practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets – believe it or not.  As my hops across the pond have evolved from once every year or two into two to four times a year occasions I have managed to deal with it better.  Listen to your body, learn what works and go with it.  Most people will take around five days to a week to get back to normal after hopping eight or more time zones.  This time will vary depending on all sorts of factors, including if you are going with or against the spin of the Earth.  In general I find it easier going west vs east, but not everyone agrees on this either.

A quick opinion on (legal) drugs:

Some people take sleeping aides, like melatonin, Ambien or even Benadryl. I have done it with minimal success.  On a 13 hour flight from Ecuador to Amsterdam I famously pounded back three melatonin and two glasses of red wine within the first thirty minutes in the air.  I was unconscious (not to be confused with sleeping) for about ten minutes, and spent the remaining 12 hours drugged, drunk and freaking the f@^% out – as it was still in my deathly-afraid-of-flying days. So – I nixed both the melatonin and red wine, and never looked back.

In my opinion this is a crutch – chemically altering your body will probably make you sleep, but it won’t be normal. And as far as the final goal is concerned – adjusting your body to a new rhythm – I personally find that it is usually screwing up more than it helps.

Take home message:

Try some of these suggestions.  Try other methods I haven’t suggested.  If something works, put it in your jet-lag toolbox for next time. If it doesn’t work, then don’t bother. After a handful of long-haul flights you will either 1) go nuts and stop travelling between time zones, or 2) you’ll figure it out and it will become more comfortable with each trip. With a little effort and vigilance you will most likely fall into the latter category.

Happy travels, sleep well… and DRINK WATER!

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