How to minimise jet lag

Jet lag can affect everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a frequent flyer with tens of thousands of air miles in the bank or somebody who takes a once a year holiday flight.

What is jet lag?

Jet lag is a sleep disorder a great many people suffer with.  It used to be considered a ‘state of mind’, but studies now show that it’s because of an imbalance in our ‘circadian rhythms’ or body clock. Our circadian rhythms are influenced by sunlight; the brain naturally wants the body to be awake during daylight hours and asleep during darkness.

However, travelling across, and to new time zones can have a major impact on our biological body clock. In our own time zone, our brain is naturally attuned to our own hours of daylight and darkness and our circadian rhythms are slow to adjust to new time zones.

Just think how your body reacts to the clocks moving forward in the spring and back in the autumn each year, sometimes it can take several days or even a few weeks to adjust to the change of just one hour in our own time zone. If that happens to you, you can begin to realise how these time changes will affect you when you add or subtract several hours as you fly west or east in one day! Flying east – losing hours has more of an impact on us than increasing them when we fly west.

Jet lag can feel like having a hangover without alcohol, symptoms can include:

  • Feeling irritable and out of sorts
  • Headaches
  • Inability to concentrate and lapses in memory
  • Feeling disorientated
  • Slower reaction times
  • Feeling shaky or shivery
  • Feeling hungry at the wrong time or no appetite at all.
  • Upset stomach, feeling constipated or feeling sick
  • Tiredness, achy muscles, restlessness

Our brain and bodies are telling us it’s time to sleep when maybe it’s lunchtime or are wanting us to be awake when it’s the middle of the night at our new destination.

Here are our top tips for managing jet lag

Before you fly

  1. It’s not always possible, but try to get a flight that will get to your destination early in the evening so you only need to stay up for a couple of hours before your natural bedtime (local time) of around 10pm. If you’ve managed to get a great deal on your flight but have to arrive at your destination at ‘silly o’clock’ , take a short nap during the afternoon. But no more than 30 minutes (set an alarm) and that shouldn’t affect or impact your bedtime routine and sleep pattern too much.
  2. Pay the extra and book your seat when you buy your ticket, if you want to sleep on your flight.  Avoid seats around the galley and toilets area or the last row in front of a bulkhead, as you won’t be able to recline your seat.  If you’re in the northern hemisphere and want to avoid the sunlight, sit on the right side of the plane flying west and left hand side flying east.
  3. If you are going on a long-haul flight and your schedule permits, build in a stopover to help your body begin to adjust to the new time zones. It could also make your flight cheaper as well!
  4. Anticipate the time zone changes several days before your trip if you can, go to bed and get up earlier if you are going east, and later if you go west.  This will begin to prepare your brain and body clock for the time changes to come.

On board the plane

  1. As soon as you’re settled in your seat, set the time on your watch to your destination time and within reason treat it as the current time.
  2. Avoid alcohol and caffeine for at least four hours before your new sleep time, if you’re flying through the night. Caffeine will stimulate you and alcohol will disrupt your sleep patterns.
  3. Keep yourself hydrated on the flight with plenty of water. Fill up your water bottle in the terminal or buy a big bottle of water before boarding.  This means you can have a drink when you want instead of bugging the cabin crew.
  4. If you can, buy low carb healthy food air side in the terminal, then you can eat when you want to, and not be at the mercy of the in-flight service.
  5. Pack a few essentials in your carry-on luggage such as decent earplugs and an eye mask, to block out as much noise and light as possible while you are sleeping on board.  Also pack some face moisturiser, lip balm and hand cream to keep your skin re-hydrated, as the atmosphere in the cabin really dries out your skin.
  6. Wear clothes that are comfortable for sitting for long periods of time in, as your stomach may get bloated. Also wear shoes that you can take off and put back on easily in case your feet swell.
  7. If you’re fortunate enough to fly business or first class, you will be able to lie flat to sleep. If you aren’t, then buy a travel pillow to support your neck and prevent your head lolling forward as you sleep.
  8. Don’t forget; when you are awake, to move around regularly and stretch and to keep the blood flowing to avoid DVT. If you already have poor blood circulation, invest in a pair of good quality flight socks (even if you don’t, they can be a wise investment on a long-haul flight).
  9. When you’re on board the plane, try not to stimulate your brain or stress levels too much, if it’s getting near sleep time.

On arrival

  1. If it’s daytime when you arrive, try and get outside in the daylight for a while, it’s a great way of adjusting and regulating your body clock.
  2. Walk around to get your blood circulating again and do some stretching exercises to get rid of all the kinks you’ll have from the flight and to reduce drowsiness.
  3. If you’ve arrived early in your destination and are feeling sleepy, grab a nap of no more than 90 minutes up until 4pm local time so as not to disrupt your sleep later.
  4. Have some sleep-inducing snacks and drinks available to have before you go to bed at night or if you wake up in the night. Bananas, almonds, almond butter, oatcakes and milk all contain high levels of tryptophan which help make melatonin your sleepy hormone. Chicken and hummus are good too, but probably not so pleasant to eat in the middle of the night!
  5. If you’re staying in a hotel, set the thermostat control to 16–18 C or 60–64F which are the perfect temperatures for sleep.
  6. Your new environment will be completely different to your home environment, you’ll have a different bed, less room, the temperature may be warmer or colder, and you’ll perhaps have flimsier curtains and definitely different noises – all of which can impact on your new sleep pattern.  See our blog on how to get the best night’s sleep in a hotel room.

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