Jet lag is the price we pay for flying faster than our body clocks. But how do you tell your body you’re in New York when it’s still on GMT? Here are 10 techniques.
For many of my clients, international travel is a part of life to seal deals, attend conferences and connect in person with colleagues around the world, but our bodies don’t like it one bit.
After long-haul flights, jet lag leaves 90% of us exhausted, irritable and disoriented — sometimes even nauseous. We crave pasta at breakfast time and feel wide awake at 2am. It affects even frequent flyers, such as pilots.
Why do we suffer jet lag? Our body’s functions, for everything from blood pressure to how hungry we are, run according to 24-hour circadian rhythms. A “master clock” in our brain controls all these rhythms in response to light exposure through the eyes. After dark, three hours or so before we normally go to bed, it releases the hormone melatonin to make us drowsy.
The master clock can adjust by about an hour in a day. But when we cross at least two time zones, jet lag sets in, says Dr Alon Avidan, of UCLA’s Sleep Disorders Center. Despite all our innovations as a species, we’ve yet to adapt to leaping through time zones at 600mph.
Though we can’t eliminate jet lag, here are 10 ways to ease its effects:
- Adjust your schedule before you leave home: go to bed an hour or two earlier (if you’re travelling west) or later (east). Change your watch to the new time zone when you board the plane, so you start thinking along the lines of the new time schedule.
- Eat only light meals in the hours before and during your flight; then eat a full meal in sync with local time after you arrive. Scientists at Harvard University and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston found a 16-hour fast with no food until you land could reset your body clock faster.
- Avoid alcohol, which is more potent at high altitude. Though a cocktail on the plane makes it easier to fall asleep, it fragments sleep quality and dehydrates you — leaving you groggy.
- Drink lots of water. The Aerospace Medical organisation recommends about 225ml of water for every hour that you are in the air.
- Caffeine helps if you fly west. A double espresso three hours before your usual bedtime can turn back your body clock by an hour, according to researchers at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge and the University of Colorado. But when flying east, that espresso will make jet lag worse — so avoid caffeine altogether when returning from New York to London.
- Move around as much as possible during the flight. Use exercise to reinforce your new time zone: if it’s morning when you arrive, a 20-30 minute walk in the fresh air is helpful. That’s a great way to “earth” yourself after many hours in the air. In the evening, stick to gentle stretching, pilates or yoga.
- Time sleeping on the plane according to the length and direction of your flight. Delay sleep when flying west — read or watch a movie instead. But on a long flight east, try to move sleep earlier. A mindfulness meditation can help you to relax (see my pick of seven great meditation apps). Use an eye mask, earplugs, a neck pillow and a blanket — your body struggles to sleep if it’s cold.
- Regulate light. To go to sleep earlier, reduce your exposure to bright lights an hour before you snuggle down. That includes your phone, tablet and laptop, which all emit blue light that wakes you up and suppresses the production of melatonin — the key promoter of sleep. (Some people find melatonin supplements can be helpful.) Alternatively, to minimise drowsiness at your destination, get out and expose yourself to sunlight. That will keep melatonin down, now to your advantage.
- Schedule meetings at times that you are most likely to feel alert and energised. That is unlikely to be in the first few hours after you arrive.
- On short trips, don’t adjust to the new time zone as you don’t want to deal with these disruptions to your circadian rhythm when you return home.
Many of us find international travel stressful. We are subjecting our bodies to what would qualify as stressors: sitting in an enclosed space, breathing recycled air while we move at high speed yet remain sedentary for hours. Much of the advice above is about managing these stressors.
We all respond to jet lag in different ways, but these techniques could help to make your next trip more effective — and more enjoyable.