Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, U.S.A.
Experiencing jet lag is like eating jambalaya, a traditional Louisiana dish made with an endless variety of meats, vegetables, rice, and Cajun seasonings.
The basic ingredients are similar each time you have jambalaya. But depending on their relative proportions and how they’re mixed together, the result can differ wildly in taste and sensation.
As with jambalaya, jet lag is often a stew of ingredients, all mixed up and simmering away, sometimes boiling over.
Jet Lag = Sleep Disorder
Jet lag is technically defined as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, resulting from rapid long-distance transmeridian (east-west or west-east) travel. I broaden the definition to include the challenges of rapidly adjusting to new hemispheres, climates, and foods.
Jet lag upsets the body’s natural rhythms. Symptoms include irregular sleep patterns, fatigue, irritability, headaches, digestive problems, disorientation, and illness. It can affect everyone differently.
Approaches to Minimising Jet Lag Effects
Over the years I’ve read just about every book and article I’ve seen on jet lag.
Advice ranges from practical tips (when to reset your watch) to new-agey suggestions (fully immersing yourself in water). Clive and I have developed several approaches that work for us. It’s important to experiment for yourself to see what you’re comfortable doing and what works best for you.
Here are our tips and techniques for managing jet lag and its effects.
Above All: Use Common Sense
My advice above all is to use common sense.
It’s good to try to adjust to the new timezone as quickly as possible. Much depends on whether and how much you slept on the plane. Sleep deprivation is draining and can have serious and even life-threatening consequences, in situations such as having to drive long distances when concentration is difficult and reaction time is slowed.
Unless you’re an all-night party animal, it’s common sense that sleeping all day won’t be helpful to adjusting to the new environment. But if your body is screaming for a nap and you’re in a position to take one, go ahead and take one.
Don’t let others shame you into staying out late if you know you’ll feel better if you get some sleep. There’s no need to be a martyr. The macho ‘I can stay awake longer than you’ travellers think it’s a crime to take a nap or go to bed early. I am not one of those people.
As I wrote in Top Ten In-Flight Insights, using visualisation can help you relax and make a long flight as comfortable as possible. One image you can visualise is yourself at arrival time, an idea I read in an airline magazine some years ago. The recommendation was to picture yourself arriving, starting with getting off the plane, then going through customs, making your way out of the airport, and arriving at your final location feeling alert, safe, healthy, and happy. This is said to help reset the biological cycle.
I have found it helpful to lean back in my airline seat and with a positive frame of mind, visualise these arrival steps before the plane actually lands.
Maximise Natural Light
For me the most important recommendation to minimise jet lag is to get out into natural light as soon and as much as possible. If you’re stuck in a conference room or business meeting, try to step outside on breaks, or worst case stand beside a window and look outside.
Best of all is if you can get outside and walk, even if only on meeting breaks or for a short time. Being in natural light helps accelerate the adjustment to the new environment.
Orient All the Senses
Before I get to the more practical suggestions, some people including me have found it extremely helpful to focus on all of the senses with increased awareness, being conscious of each one as we enter and spend time in the new surroundings.
Breathing and Scents
From the moment you get off the plane, and especially when exiting the airport (but after you get through the gauntlet of smokers, if groups of them are congregating just outside), breathe in deeply and take in the local atmosphere and weather. This includes various smells and aromas of everything from people to food to airport traffic to humidity to flowers and trees.
It’s so easy to rush into a taxi or train, or look for car rental signs, without noticing the surrounding sights, even inside the airport. It helps the adjustment process if you take enough time to really look around and take note of the new scene. Even if the language and much of the generic airport landscape is similar to that of your departure location, you can still observe signs, people, and often a new view out the windows.
Earlier this week, we left blue sky, bright sunshine, leafy trees, and warm autumn weather in Sydney. We arrived in New York to steel grey skies, sub-zero temperatures, high winds, and mile after mile of bare trees whose branches have no hint of a bud. We’re still marveling at the visual contrast as I write this post.
As with breathing in the new atmosphere, also pause for a few moments to listen and absorb the noises in the new place. When we travel in Asia, it helps me as I’m breathing in to listen to the different languages being spoken all around me. I love hearing French when we arrive in Paris. Listening to new sounds and languages assists in internalising the fact that I’m really in a new country or region.
Touch & Feel
I have read that travellers who are met by caring friends or relatives who give the new arrivals lots of hugs have an advantage in becoming grounded in the new location. I believe there is some truth to this. It may sound a bit new-agey, but the energy of the local residents is said to transfer to the new arrivals via the human touch.
If you’re on a business trip or arriving at a new-for-you tourist destination, you may not have locals to hug. You can still feel the climate, temperature, wind, and humidity on your skin when you pause to breathe in and be conscious of the new location. When I leave Sydney in summer and arrive in Beijing in winter, breathing in the cold air with awareness and listening to Mandarin being spoken all around me helps me adjust not only externally but also internally.
Many of my female business colleagues ended a long work day in China or Japan by having a massage in the hotel. In addition to the relaxing effect of massage, the touch of the local inhabitant would have contributed to this transfer of energy, which in turn improves well-being and adjustment.
Practical Techniques to Manage Jet Lag
Water – Drinking and Immersing
Similar to the need to keep hydrated while in flight, it’s important to drink a lot of water after you arrive. This is especially true if you’re sensitive to new foods and eating them might cause digestive issues. Drinking water will help your body adjust and stay healthy.
Depending on where you are, use sensible precautions before drinking water from the tap. Most Asian hotels provide bottled water daily.
One recommendation I’ve found helpful is to fully immerse yourself in water as soon as possible. If you can swim in a pool, lake, or ocean, this is ideal. If not, soaking in a bathtub and sinking down low enough to duck your head under the water is also said to help the body acclimate more quickly. Even taking an extra-long shower is helpful, not only to remove airline grunge and lingering static electricity, but also to help clean and refresh the skin. Rubbing and scrubbing essentially removes the top layer of skin and freshens it so it can more easily adapt to the new climate and atmosphere.
Taste, Food, and Eating Patterns
I read in one article that changing your diet several days before departure is a partial cure for jet lag. I don’t think this is necessary. Just use common sense. As recommended in my in-flight insights post, don’t eat too much just before or during the flight. Especially avoid any heavy, greasy food that might upset your stomach or make you uncomfortable before you arrive at your destination.
On the ground, make the first meal relatively light and healthy. Then focus on maintaining good nutrition and eating habits each day. This is so important when eating new and different foods. We always pack Alka-Seltzer as a backup, in case of upset stomachs at night.
Eating local foods, and adopting local meal times, helps greatly in adjusting to the new location. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t pack a few favourite snacks (Customs permitting) from home, especially if you’re travelling with children. The overall feeling of adjustment and well-being improves if you can gradually adapt to the food of your destination.
If you exercise every day, try to get out and do it at your usual time. If you meditate or practice yoga, continue to do so at the destination. One of my business colleagues always travelled with a yoga mat. As at home, use common sense and schedule the most important tasks or meetings for the times when you feel most energetic. For me, this means when travelling east, afternoons and evenings work well. When travelling west, mornings are usually better.
I’m not suggesting you try to fully duplicate your personal routine. The key is to determine which if any activities are most important to you, and figure out how best to incorporate them into your schedule at the new location. You’ll feel better if you include them, and if you do key activities at the times you have the most energy.
Social Interaction – Do as the Locals Do
As much as possible I recommend the approach of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. If everyone eats late, try to do the same, even if you crave a cheeseburger at 2:30 p.m., which Clive and I did a few days ago. If locals get out and walk in the evening, do that too. This helps reset the body’s biological cycles to be more in tune with those of everyone else at the new location, and speeds adjustment to the new timezone.
Other Quirks and Considerations
There’s an old rule of thumb that says you need one day of rest or recovery for every timezone crossed. This varies significantly depending on the individual and the combination of factors involved in a given trip. Most of us usually need to hit the ground running without any pause or recovery period, even when we’ve crossed ten or twelve timezones. We have found even with a 16 hour time difference we’re usually fully adjusted after a few days. But if you find yourself still dragging, there’s no need to panic since you know it’s part of the body’s normal adjustment process .
Direction flown: Another general rule says flying west produces less jet lag than flying east, except for night owls (which I’m not) who can handle flying east better than others. Senior airline staff often choose western-bound flights. I prefer flying west, with the kind of jet lag that results in waking before dawn vs. being wide awake at 2 a.m. For me, flying east and having to get up when the body is still in deep sleep is a struggle. Often with a simple itinerary you don’t have a choice about which direction to fly.
When to reset your watch: Some travellers are fanatics about this, insisting you should set your watch to the destination time the minute you sit down in your airplane seat. I disagree, and recommend experimenting (if you care about this item at all) to see if it makes a difference in how you feel on arrival. I usually reset my watch when we land in the new location, but until then I tend to leave it on the local time we left. Clive points out that with airline maps and progress reports on the back of most seats now, resetting your watch is less important than it was in the past. Today you can look at the screen and find out exactly what time it is where you left, time at destination, how long you’ve been in the air, and how long until you reach your destination. For some people, resetting the watch early in the flight helps get a head start on internalising the destination time.
Crossing the International Date Line: This can sometimes exacerbate jet lag by adding to a general feeling of disorientation. On Monday, we left Sydney at 11am and arrived in Los Angeles at 7am on the ‘same day’. Sounds impossible! It’s like Groundhog Day, with an endless breakfast service. From New York to Sydney, you might miss your birthday, or even Christmas Day, when you leave New York Friday evening and arrive in Sydney on Sunday morning. People ask, “What happened to Saturday?” In these instances, I find it most helpful to focus on the senses upon arrival and tell myself if I’ve lost a day, I’ll get it back on the next trip and vice-versa.
Change of hemisphere, climate, or season: These issues can also disrupt the body’s natural rhythms and contribute to sleep deprivation and feelings of disorientation. What helps me most in these cases is to get as much natural light as possible, get outside and walk, and remember to be conscious of all the senses in being receptive to the new environment.
Getting clean and horizontal: Almost everyone heads for the shower after a long-haul flight, and sometimes to showers en route. Clive and I have taken advantage of Tokyo’s Narita Airport facilities a few times. For me, getting clean and horizontal and grabbing even a couple hours of sleep goes a long way to overcoming jet lag at the final destination. When we have an early morning arrival in Sydney after flights from Europe or the U.S., I can’t wait to get clean and horizontal, and take a nap. Clive usually stays up. He says he’s afraid of sleeping all day if he goes to bed in the morning. As with everything else related to jet lag, it depends on how much sleep, if any, you get on the plane and how you feel on arrival.
First night, following nights: We often find we sleep well on the first night after a long-haul flight. This is largely because we don’t sleep much on planes and our bodies are so tired we’re able to get a decent sleep. On the second and third nights, the powerful body clock takes over and we experience more fitful sleeps.
Leave a light on: We like to leave a hall or hotel bathroom light on during the night. If we wake up in the middle of the night, this helps us quickly get oriented. We also avoid knocking things over reaching for a light switch or stumbling around in the dark.
Second (and sometimes third) wave: It’s not uncommon to experience a second wave of jet lag several days or even a week after arrival. Sometimes I think I’ve adjusted and am then hit with another day or two of feeling not quite right. When I moved to Australia in 1995, several expats told me they experienced a third wave of jet lag several weeks after they arrived. Knowing this might happen makes it easier to relax and move through it if and when it occurs.
Coming home is easier: It’s always harder to adjust to new, unfamiliar rhythms than to return to an environment you know well. If you’re really struggling with jet lag at your destination, remember it’s usually not as bad when you go home.
What I Don’t Recommend
Some travellers rely on sleeping pills or melatonin to overcome jet lag. Clive and I both feel strongly it’s best to avoid all sleep medications. I’ve read they can be harmful and actually delay the natural adjustment process the body needs to go through. I suggest trying the approaches above before resorting to sleeping pills.
Clive travels completely pill-free. I occasionally get what I call a jet lag headache, and take Nurofen (ibuprofen) to help. I don’t do it often, but I figure it’s common sense there’s no need to suffer when two Nurofen tablets usually do the trick.
Remedies for Jet Lag Jambalaya – A Summary
Like jambalaya, jet lag is a stew of ingredients with multiple variations. Its effects may be different each time you travel. Above all, use common sense. Before landing, visualise yourself arriving, going through customs, exiting the airport, and arriving at your final destination feeling well and happy. Get out into natural light as soon and as much as possible, taking walks if you can. Remember to be conscious of all your senses in taking in the new environment. Adopt local mealtimes, food, and social patterns as soon as possible. Drink a lot of water and make your first meal on the ground a light, healthy one. If certain activities such as yoga or exercise are important to you at home, try to work them into your schedule at the new location.
Remember it may take a few days or more to overcome jet lag, and you may experience a second and even third wave, depending on how long you’re away. Try to stay relaxed, knowing this is part of the normal adjustment process.
The body clock is very powerful. I suggest experimenting with these suggestions to find out what works best for you. Your body will adapt more quickly and easily to the new environment and timezone, and a good night’s sleep with be your reward.
My next post in this series will cover our tips for managing personal business while away.
Cheers and more to come.
A Passion for Travel, Part 1: Introducing the Series
A Passion for Travel, Part 2: The Master Trip Calendar
A Passion for Travel, Part 3: Travel Planning Checklist
A Passion for Travel, Part 4: Packing without Panic
A Passion for Travel, Part 5: Travel Technology
A Passion for Travel, Part 6: Departure Checklist
A Passion for Travel, Part 7: Airport Survival Strategies
A Passion for Travel, Part 8: Top Ten In-Flight Insights
A Passion for Travel, Part 8a: Eleventh In-Flight Insight
Filed under: A Passion for Travel |