Sick of feeling tired and taking days to recover when travelling? Learn how to manage jet lag.
In our modern society where we are often flying between multiple time zones, particularly from Australia, jet lag is something that many of us experience and need strategies to help overcome.
Some people are more susceptible to the effects of jet lag than others. We all have colleagues who seem to be able to travel anywhere, sleep well at their destination and awaken bright eyed and bushy tailed. However, we are not all blessed with that same genetic ability to cope with both sleep deprivation and changes in the body clock so rapidly and the majority of people will find it takes some time to adjust to new time zones. As a general principle, the human body can adjust to two-time-zone travel in the westward direction per 24 hours and one time zone of travel in the eastward direction per 24 hours. Putting into place strategies to optimise shift in the circadian rhythm can usually double this rate of adjustment.
Planning before you travel is the key
The secret to managing jet lag is planning ahead. Importantly, selecting flights that are not necessarily the cheapest, but if you can afford to, selecting flights that allow adequate opportunity for sleep at a time that fits both your sleep pattern and the sleep pattern at your destination. I will often have people asking for advice about how to adjust to a new time zone when they are travelling for business but when they show me their itinerary the flights have been chosen by someone else and have no consideration of that person’s usual sleep pattern or the desired sleep timing at their destination.
I usually find it helpful to map out both time in your usual home and time at your new destination as well as any transit points such as in the table below which was planning a 14 hour flight between Melbourne and Los Angeles (17 hours behind Melbourne). From the table, the plan was to get up very early in Melbourne on the day of departure, at the equivalent of 9:30am in Los Angeles. Then aim to sleep on the flight 6 hours after departure, at 3:15pm Melbourne time / 10:15pm Los Angeles time. This allowed around 7 hours for sleep and then an hour and a half to wake up and have breakfast ready to arrive at 6:35am in Los Angeles.
|Day of travel||Wake up||Dep MEL||Aim to sleep||Wake up||Arrive LAX|
This makes it a little easier to see when there are good opportunities for sleep and in which direction you need to shift your sleep cycle. This can make it easier with selecting appropriate flights and also planning which flights to aim for sleep and which flights to be not necessarily needing to sleep.
Managing general health and avoiding sleep deprivation
One of the ways to minimise the impact of jet lag is to be physically fit and healthy. People who are less fit, have poor nutrition or are in poor general health are less able to tolerate the effects of rapid changes in time zones and the associated sleep deprivation. So, rather than ignoring exercise or good nutrition in the busy lead up to travel it is actually more important to maintain these activities both prior to travelling and on arrival.
Often before we travel we are very busy with lots of things to finalise before leaving. This results in us being more sleep deprived than usual and we figure that we will just collapse on the plane and catch up on sleep. Unless you are a fantastic sleeper on planes, this is usually a flawed strategy as it often does not work and we get frustrated as we thought we were going to catch up on sleep on the plane but then find we are having difficulties getting that sleep on the plane. Therefore it is important to ensure we are adequately rested before travel as being overly sleep deprived when travelling makes it harder to perform and deal with the effects of jet lag on arrival.
Make sure you have the right tools for your flight
Another aspect of planning is ensuring you have the appropriate tools to help manage jet lag both during travel and on arrival. The key tools for managing jet lag are:
Ability to Manage Light: Having comfortable eyeshades enable you to ensure that it can be dark when you need it to be dark even if the hotel room curtains are not great or the lights are on on the plane at a time when you need to be sleeping. There are also devices that can give light such as a Re-Timer for Feel Bright Light. (For details on these devices see this post on light therapy) These can be worn on a plane if you need light at a time when it is dark or in your hotel room on arrival if you need to shift your body clock using light. Re-Timer have a good calculator on their website which tells you what time to use light to best adjust your body clock.
Noise-Cancelling Headphones: When travelling we are often not able to control noise in the environment. If we are trying to sleep at a time when there is noise, such as on an aeroplane during meal service or other times, having noise-cancelling headphones enables us to withdraw in to our own space and sleep at a time that suits our schedule rather than everybody else’s schedule. Noise-cancelling headphones can also be helpful on arrival if the hotel is noisy and there are factors that you are not able to control.
Melatonin and/or Sleeping Tablets: Melatonin can be used to help adjust to a new time zone. Some people find this a helpful strategy and would generally use melatonin as a light sedative and to help adjust the body clock, taking it around one hour before bed at their new destination. For people who know they have difficulty sleeping either on planes or when travelling it is probably worth planning ahead and having a supply of sleeping tablets on hand. Rather than waiting until you are having a lot of difficulty and feeling distressed, being proactive and using the sleeping tablets for a couple of days around the time of travel and adjusting to your new time zone can prevent becoming overly sleep deprived.
Avoid Alcohol and Dehydration: Some people use alcohol as a strategy on the plane to help with getting to sleep. This never ends well, as whist it can help some people get to sleep, it makes it harder to stay asleep and can also make people feel more tired, adding to the effects of jet lag and sleep deprivation. It is also important during travel to make sure we drink enough water to avoid becoming dehydrated.
Managing light, activity and meals on arrival
When we arrive at our new destination it is important that we give inputs to our circadian system that synchronise it with our new time zone. The key synchronising factors are light, physical activity and meals. As such we should ensure that we are giving the body inputs that are consistent with our new time zone. This is particularly important first thing in the morning with light exposure and activity and throughout the day with meals. Therefore it is important, even if we arrive in the morning feeling very tired that we do not retire to the hotel room for rest but are physically active and getting sufficient light exposure to cue the body in to our new time zone.
We may not be feeling hungry, as our appetite regulation may be not yet at our new time zone but having meals at the set expected times in our new time zone can help shift the body clock to the new time zone more quickly. Therefore, rather than just eating on the run or eating when hungry, recognise that those cues may not be coming at the right time so we need to manage the timing of meals more proactively.
Related posts & links:
- Light therapy. What devices are available?
- Entrain app – Guidance on light exposure for travel
- Using maths to manage jet lag – interview with the developer of the Entrain app
- A plan for jet lag – New York Times
- Is melatonin helpful for sleep?
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