Jetlag, the cycle of midday drowsiness and 3am restlessness we all know and hate, is essentially caused by your body crossing time zones faster than your brain can catch up. Our wake/sleep cycles, appetite and other physical ‘clocks’ are all governed by the hormone melatonin, produced by the pituitary gland, which in turn is influenced by exposure to sunlight and darkness. Flying across several time zones interrupts its natural 24-hour cycle, throwing all your body clocks out of sync. Result: your brain thinks it’s still in New York when it’s really in Sydney, while your body isn’t quite sure where it is.
So, how do you beat jetlag? It’s all about prevention, not cure.
Before your next long haul flight, try going to bed an hour earlier each night and getting up an hour earlier each morning if heading east, or doing the reverse for a few days if traveling west. This will reduce the difference between your sleep schedule and the local time at your destination, leaving you a little fresher.
Choose the right plane
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 boast anti-jetlag features, including mood lighting designed to simulate daylight and nighttime in a more natural rhythm. Flying business class rather than economy may help reduce jetlag for the simple reason that it’s easier to sleep in business; if it’s economy or bust, however, use Seatguru to choose the most comfortable (read: spacious) seat on your flight.
Just say no
As attractive as they can seem during a tedious and tiring journey, it’s wise to avoid alcohol and caffeine from the time you arrive at the airport. Coffee, tea and booze all cause dehydration, which has been shown to exacerbate the symptoms of jetlag. The pressurised atmosphere and conditioned air in the plane are also major dehydration culprits, so drink lots of water and bring your own herbal tea bags to use during the hot drinks service.
Most airline meals are highly processed, both to preserve the food and to ensure you can taste it (high cabin pressure mutes your senses of smell and taste). That means there’s a lot of salt, fat and/or sugar in your in-flight food. Airports typically offer more fast food than healthy dining options, too. All of this contributes to a sense of sluggishness, both during your flight and after you arrive. Eat a large meal with plenty of protein and veggies before departing for the airport, and pack healthy snacks like nuts and fruit so you won’t be so tempted by the bad stuff.
Travelling east typically results in worse jetlag than travelling west, as it has the effect of shortening rather than lengthening the day of travel. Always check your direction of travel, and when travelling east, allow yourself an extra day or two to recover before any important events.
Give yourself a break
It’s easy to forget that flying is not a natural state; jetlag is one way our bodies respond to conditions they weren’t designed for. So be kind to yourself, and don’t try to push your body past its limits! Sleep, hydration, sunlight and healthy food are as fundamental to life in the air as they are on the ground, so make sure you get plenty of each to reduce or eliminate jetlag.