If you're a frequent flier, you're probably all too familiar with the uncomfortable sensation of crossing many time zones while waiting for your internal clock to catch up. Waking up in the middle of the night. Getting erratic hunger pangs. Feeling fatigued, irritable and disoriented. Let's face it: Diagnosing the symptoms of jet lag isn't difficult, especially if you traverse different time zones often.
But finding a one-size-fits-all solution for conquering jet lag isn't so easy or clear-cut. Take it from Heather Poole, a flight attendant at a major carrier and author of "Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet." According to Poole, "Nobody beats it. You just deal with it as best you can." While there's no secret remedy for curing jet lag, it helps to understand the factors that impact your degree of jet lag so you can minimize its effects. With this in mind, we spoke with seasoned road warriors and flight attendants to bring you smart strategies to fight fatigue and fly on.
Poole suggests getting outside and getting sunlight as soon as possible after domestic flights. "Light wakes you up," she says, pointing out that the key to switching your sleep patterns is monitoring your exposure to light while in flight and once you arrive. "It's why I stay off my phone or computer when I want to go to sleep. That light from the screen wakes up a part of my brain, and I'll stay awake regardless of how tired I am," she says. Betty Thesky, a flight attendant for a major carrier and the author of "Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase: Hilarious Stories of Air Travel by the World's Favorite Flight Attendant," echoes similar sentiments. When flying from Europe to the U.S., she suggests exposure to sunlight, exercise and coffee to perk up.
According to Dr. Christopher Sanford, a travel medicine expert, associate professor of global health at the University of Washington and author of MerckManuals.com's travel medicine section, "Early-morning exposure to bright light for eastward flight and before-bed exposure to light for westward flight may reduce jet lag." As a result, most travelers find westward travel takes less of a toll than traveling east, he explains, pointing out that the body's natural inclination is to stay awake, making it easier for travelers to adjust their wake-sleep cycle when traveling east to west.
Adjust Your Inner Clock … For Longer Trips
"The key is to stay awake long enough to go to bed early," Poole says, emphasizing that your approach for adjusting to a new time zone hinges on the time you land. "When I used to fly from New York to Vancouver, I'd work out, go shopping or grab something to eat, and then go to bed around 7 or 8 p.m. I'd wake up feeling great," she says. Conversely, when landing in Europe in the morning, Poole prefers to get a few hours of shut-eye, but makes sure to wake up after two to three hours. "If I'm really tired, I might leave the curtains cracked so the room doesn't get completely dark, or I'll leave the TV on so it won't be as hard to wake up," she says, cautioning, "I just know if I don't wake up, I'll pay the price later." After getting up, Poole prefers to explore the city and eat when she gets hungry. She also tries to stay awake until 10 p.m. "The secret is staying slightly tired until you go to bed, so you can go back to bed. If you go to sleep too early, you'll wake up at 2 a.m. wide awake," she says, noting that consuming too much caffeine can also make it difficult to adjust your sleep cycle.
"I believe it is always better to get sleep if you can," Thesky says. She recommends setting realistic goals, emphasizing that many people place unattainable expectations on themselves. "They think, OK, it's an eight-hour flight. I'll get six hours sleep, arrive in Europe and hit the ground running." Despite their intention to cure the lag time quickly, "These folks are usually very disappointed and feel like walking zombies by the end of their first day," she explains. Thesky prefers to sleep during the flight and take a nap upon arriving before hitting the streets.
According to Sanford, if you're traveling across many time zones quickly, "You're probably going to experience daytime sleepiness and nighttime insomnia and feel spacey for a few days." While it's a smart idea to go to bed at the appropriate local time, for shorter trips he advises maintaining your current sleep patterns to reduce jet lag symptoms.
[See: How to Pack Light.]
Stay Hydrated and Maintain a Healthy Diet
As Sanford puts it, "There's no magic method to abruptly boost your immune system, but regular exercise, avoiding tobacco and [eating] a balanced diet all favor good health." He also cautions that jet air tends to be dry, so it's important to stay hydrated while in flight.
Poole echoes similar sentiments. "Being dehydrated will make you feel tired," she says. While it can be tricky to maintain a well-balanced diet while on the road, it's advantageous to bring some staples, she adds, pointing out that she tries to pack nuts, yogurt, a banana or carrots with hummus.
Another good way to adjust to a new time zone is hitting the gym, Poole says. Though maintaining an exercise routine can be challenging while traveling, it can help jolt you awake and adjust quickly, she adds. Still, she cautions it's best not to stretch yourself too thin – prioritze what's most important for you to feel your best, whether that's sleep or exercise. "For me, sleep is more important when I'm on the road working. If I'm tired, I'm cranky and I don't handle difficult situations as well as I do when I'm rested … I try to work out hard when I'm home so that I don't feel guilty when I can't find the time to work out when I'm traveling," she explains.
Prepare Prior to Takeoff and Pack the Necessities
Before you travel overseas, Sanford advises ensuring you're up to date on immunizations, including influenza. "If traveling to a low-income nation, see a pre-travel provider to discuss, among other topics, additional vaccinations and the need for an antimalarial medication," he adds. And during your flight, he suggests minimizing the amount of alcohol you consume to avoid extra dehydration and fatigue.
Beyond taking the necessary precautions ahead of your trip, it's also critical to ensure you bring items that will optimize in-flight comfort. "I never travel without my headphones, even if I never turn them on. It's the best way to avoid a chatty neighbor. I have a playlist I only listen to when I'm traveling. It's calm and peaceful, and if it doesn't put me to sleep, it definitely helps me to relax. I'm like Pavlov's dog: As soon as I hear it, I go limp – even in a middle seat," Poole says. Sanford also urges packing ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones to block out most sounds, though he cautions that little can mitigate the sound of crying babies at 35,000 feet. Apart from headphones, Thesky recommends packing a blanket, eye shades or ear plugs to ensure comfort, along with a book in case you encounter in-air technical difficulty.
Consider Skipping the Sleep Aids
For some, taking an antihistamine, a prescription medication or melatonin can help, Sanford explains, but it varies according to the traveler. And before you take melatonin, Sanford cautions that it's not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. "Although most people, anecdotally, find some benefit from taking it, large studies demonstrating safety and efficacy have not been performed," he explains.
"Melatonin helps a bit," Thesky says, though she strongly encourages fliers to skip Ambien and other prescription medicine on an airplane, particularly if they plan to indulge in alcoholic drinks. While a sleeping pill that a traveler is comfortable with will do the trick, she points out that it's not uncommon on long-haul flights for passengers to pair a pill with too many drinks and "end up doing something crazy they will have no recollection of a few hours later."
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