Let’s face it, flying across time zones is great for our spirit and our soul, yet it wreaks havoc on our internal clocks. It takes the body about one day per time zone to fully recover from jet lag.
A recent New York – Hong Kong – Singapore – San Francisco series of flights in one week reminded me the challenges in fighting the effects of jet lag effectively.
We’re a chronically sleep-deprived society, thanks to the demands of our jobs and personal lives. We’re extending our waking hours, exchanging our sleep for other activities. We try to convince ourselves that “It’s OK, I don’t need to sleep as much.” But when we do this day after day and night after night, we end up with a “sleep debt,” and we’re fatigued.
“Fatigue is a state that results from sleep loss, continuous hours of wakefulness, disruptions of your body clock, and workload that affects you both mentally and physically,” says Dr. Melissa Mallis, of M3 Alertness Management. “There are individual differences to how much sleep people need per night, and how people respond to sleep loss,” she adds.
It takes about two days to eliminate any sleep debt within a person’s normal schedule. It may seem simple, but we can recover from sleep debt by being regimented in our sleep schedule, and to sleep in on our days off. “What happens on a Saturday morning is that you don’t make up the lost sleep hours one-for-one, but you have more deep sleep, and then you end up sleeping a little bit longer. Your brain restructures your sleep cycle. It usually takes about two days – a weekend – to eliminate any sleep debt with a person’s normal schedule; three days if they’re working nights or going across time zones,” says Mallis.
Here are several ways to combat Jet Leg and recover faster.
For five or seven day trips, start a week before departure start pushing your bed time later if you’re flying west, earlier if you’re flying east to better match your destination time zone. If work allows, start adjusting your wake time as well and go into work earlier or later. If you’re flying half way around the world, it may not be convenient to shift your schedule by 12 hours, but adding or subtracting a few hours will make the transition easier.
Once you arrive at your destination time zone, if you’re there for less than three days, you should try to stay on your home clock. Longer than three days, get on the destination schedule right away, eat lighter meals at the right time, stay awake until local night, and when you wake up in the morning, expose yourself to sunlight.
In flight, try to take a nap, minimize the amount of caffeine that you drink, and drink lots of water. To actually lie flat and sleep is probably the most important activity for recovery.
Dine and Drink on Time
In addition to changing your sleep patterns, changing your eating patterns a few days before will help your body adjust as well. You don’t want to wake at 3AM because your body thinks it’s 8AM and time for breakfast. Continue this on the plane. Pack snacks or save airline meals until the appropriate time. Another key factor, keep hydrated and get at least your eight glasses of water a day.
People who spend as much time airborne as they do on the ground, often face meetings or working dinners as soon as they get off the airplane. It could be the middle of the night at home, but the road warrior might be sitting down at a multi-course meal, trying to close a deal. It’s bad enough that you’re tired and not even wanting to eat, all you want is dessert. When you’re sleep deprived, you crave high sugar and high-fat foods. But if you eat them, you’ll get the ‘crash’ and feel a low point. Focus on proteins, and fruit and vegetables instead.
Try to consume a high-protein diet, plus tea or coffee if you wish to speed up your system and keep you awake, or have a high carbohydrate meal if you wish to slow down your metabolism, and avoid stimulants such as caffeine or sugars to make you sleepy.
Set your Watch and Sleep Cycles
As soon as you begin your flight, set your watch to your destination time. This will let you know when you should be awake and/or asleep. If you can, on the flight, jump-start your sleep patterns by staying awake or sleeping according to your new schedule. If you should be sleeping, spring for the extra room to stretch out in Business or First Class. If you’re lucky enough to be on a flight with flat beds, we highly recommend taking advantage.
Headphones and the right content can help you sleep or stay awake. Pack noise-cancelling headphones to block out the surrounding sounds (or amp up the noise if you need to stay awake.) Think upbeat tunes or comedies to keep you awake. Alternatively, an eye mask and soothing tones (think what you might hear while getting a massage) helps lull you into sleep.
If it’s daytime when you arrive, stay outside. The natural sunlight will help your serotonin levels adjust to the time change. Physical activity such as walking will also help adjust your circadian rhythm. Consider a more vigorous activity in the mornings and even a light walk in the evening. The evening exercise will help tire you out, but be sure to do it two hours before bedtime to give your body enough time to wind down.
Eat Light and Right
Keep eating according to your new schedule but be sure to choose foods wisely. A protein packed breakfast will sustain your energy throughout the day and heavier carb-rich foods will make you sleepy. Be sure to eat those in moderation, as you also want to avoid any tummy trouble while you’re on vacation. Watch your alcohol consumption before your body adjusts. While you may think it may help you sleep, alcohol induced sleep is not high quality sleep.
Keep Up Your Workouts
Being on an airplane is no excuse for skipping a workout session. With longer flights than ever before, a new wave of in-flight exercises may take fitness-on-the-fly to higher levels.
Sitting is the new smoking, or that’s at least according to a number of health experts. Backed by recent research, the march against our sedentary proclivities has helped popularize Fitbits and standing desks, and highlights the lack of activity passengers get when traveling, particularly on a lengthy flight.
Prolonged sitting can have adverse effects on your muscles and overall health. A five-hour flight may not seem long, however, when combined with the rest of our day. Over half of an average person’s day is spent being sedentary. Small bouts of exercise are imperative to maintaining overall physical and mental health, especially when combined with other effects of flying.
Currently, the world’s longest nonstop flight is Emirates’ Dubai–Auckland route, lasting roughly 17 hours and 15 minutes. The airline offers resources to help passengers stay healthy on board, including energizing in-seat exercise instructions delivered through radio channels and pages in the in-flight magazine. The suggested exercises are geared toward reducing muscle fatigue and encouraging blood flow, minimizing the risk of deep vein thrombosis.
Chinese carriers such as China Southern, Spring and Shenzhen have brought the importance of in-flight fitness to the forefront by having flight attendants lead passengers through a series of in-seat stretches. The captive workout session encourages the cabin full of passengers to mimic the flight attendants through a series of arm, head and leg movements that increase blood flow and activate the body.
While many airlines offer tips for staying active, they are often found hidden in the seat-back pocket or in-flight entertainment back channels. Actively demonstrating movement in front of passengers creates mindfulness around activity. Passengers from China and Japan, where it’s not uncommon to begin a workday with morning exercises, may feel more comfortable with collective in-flight exercises than flyers from elsewhere, but as Chinese and Japanese flyers begin to travel long distances in larger numbers, in-flight workout sessions could become the norm.
For those who’d rather workout on terra firma, airports worldwide are getting on board with fitness, too. Our airport guides feature the location and services of fitness centers at world’s major airports.