Jet lag can be the bane of any frequent flyer’s travel experience. Waking up sprightly and raring to go in the middle of the night or feeling yourself beginning to drift off during that all-important mid-day meeting – being in a new time zone your body is not accustomed to can have significant repercussions if not managed properly.
Few individuals have to deal with the threat of jet lag as routinely as airline staff, however. So just how do they do it? We ask cabin crew and pilots from three top airlines what steps they recommend for frequent flyers to beat jet lag.
Set your watch to your destination’s local time zone when you step into the cabin
One of the key ways to counter the initial onset of jet lag is to prepare appropriately ahead of time. The sooner you can begin to get your body adjusted to a new time zone, the longer it has to adapt before a critical meeting.
“It really is vital for travellers to quickly adjust themselves to the local time,” says Chenkai Zhou, senior flight attendant at Lufthansa German Airlines. “Try to control your sleep on board including small naps. When you have slept too much during your flight, it would be difficult for you to sleep again when you arrive.”
When you arrive in your destination, it can always be tempting to get a little shuteye when you are feeling overwhelmingly tired and, according to one Cathay Pacific pilot, a short nap can indeed be a good thing. Just remember to be disciplined with how long that nap actually lasts and force yourself to wake up when you’ve finished napping for the allotted time.
“If you can actually drag yourself out of bed to the shower and get up, 30 minutes later you will feel okay,” he says. “Make it to a decent time and then crash for the night. Supposedly you recover one hour of time zone per day, so it does take time to fully adjust.
“But don’t nap for more than two hours. Any more than two hours and you fall into a deep sleep, or REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep. You don’t want to get into this or you start to suffer from sleep inertia, where it becomes negative to wake up.”
Modify your eating habits and exercise routines
Much like your sleep schedule, your eating and exercise routines play a big role in managing when your energy levels are higher or lower, which can help you to take a more active role in managing your internal clock.
“It’s best to eat little prior to your journey – this makes the journey more enjoyable,” says Alvin Poon, a member of British Airways’ cabin crew. “When you get to the destination, start eating according to the new time zone. Exercising between late afternoon and early evening appears to be the optimal time to reset the clock more rapidly in a new time zone.”
While indulging in coffee may help you stay awake, it won’t help you mitigate the effects of jet lag, says the Cathay Pacific pilot. “Staying active is key – if you slow down then you will crash out at an inconvenient time for your time zone. Exercise is good, but often I’m too tired, so just going out for a walk is helpful. Stay engaged until it’s time for bed, as sitting inside or watching a movie will cause you to fall asleep easily.”
Use light effectively
The human body is accustomed to functioning better during daylight, so it is important to “remember that sports and daylight can help you to reset your biological clock,” says Zhou.
Poon goes further and recommends using specific tools to help you regulate your sleeping pattern. “As the internal clock is strongly influenced by light, the best way to control jet lag is by appropriate exposure to, or avoidance of, light at specific times of the day,” says Poon. “If you’re suffering from jet lag, visit ba.com/travel/DrSleep and use my jet lag calculator to work out how to use light effectively.”
Ditch the smartphone
Not entirely, of course, but making sure you put down your devices and switch off your laptop helps your mind wind down. Similar to the above point, light impacts how your body’s internal clock calibrates, and introducing high levels of light at the wrong time can make it particularly difficult to sleep at the correct time.
“Blue light makes the brain think it’s time to wake up,” says Zhou. “But if you really want to chat with friends or do some laptop work before you fall asleep, use the night mode on your equipment. This will automatically turn the blue light into a yellow light.”
This is particularly important if you find yourself up in the middle of the night. Resist the temptation to quickly check your messages, look at your Facebook feed or watch a video. Instead, Poon suggests relocating when you feel your sleep has been interrupted. “If you wake up and find you stay awake for longer than 20 minutes, get up and rest somewhere else. Only return to your bed when you feel sleepy again.”
Remember your danger zone
While setting your watch to your new time zone is a good way to preempt the effects of jet lag, it is useful to also be aware of the time zone in your place of origin. “The time that you are likely to feel sleepiest and most likely to make mistakes is between 3am and 5am of your home time zone,” says Poon. “Be wary.”
If that important midday meeting in your new destination coincides with the middle of the night in your home city, perhaps think about moving it to an earlier or later time. If that is not possible, however, Poon says that “coffee can be a good antidote”.
Employ natural methods to alleviate jet lag
In the pursuit of a good night’s sleep, it can be tempting to overly rely on aides such as sleeping tablets, alcohol or caffeine to try and artificially alter one’s internal clock. While these can indeed be useful in a pinch, the results they offer aren’t always optimal. “Sleep after alcohol is never deep sleep, as many people will know from personal experience after a night out – you wake up feeling tired,” says the pilot.
Zhou says he has much better success using more natural alternatives. “I highly recommend using natural ways to deal with jet lag instead of taking sleeping pills. Several drops of lavender oil on your cushion, a cup of herbal “Schlaf und Nerven Tee (sleep-well tea), a hot bath, a traditional Chinese massage or a glass of hot milk can put you down for a sound sleep.”
The Cathay Pacific pilot adds that temperature, both of your environment and the food you eat, can impact how easily you fall asleep. “Cold is good for sleeping as it slows down your metabolism and body so you can sleep better. Warm is better for staying awake. Also, if you are trying to sleep, don’t eat spicy food. Typically it will warm up the body, increasing your metabolism, which isn’t great for sleeping. An unsettled stomach also disrupts sleep.”