How to deal with jetlag

Jetlag is a familiar problem for me. As a flight attendant for one of the nation’s largest airlines, it’s something I’ve had to get used to. I’ve crisscrossed the globe, jet-setting from one side of the world to the opposite side in a matter of days. Sometimes I feel like a time traveler. Especially when a flight from Tokyo to New York that departs at noon arrives twelve hours later at eleven in the morning the same day. Such equations are why jetlag puts us in a fog. But there are simple steps you can take to mitigate and alleviate the symptoms of jetlag.

First, it’s important to understand what jetlag is, and what its causes are.

Your body relies on cycles of darkness and light to know when you should sleep and when you should eat. This cycle becomes disrupted when you suddenly become displaced in a different time zone with light and dark cycles to which your body is not accustomed. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself craving dinner at breakfast time, and wide-awake when you normally would be fast asleep. This is jetlag.

Drinking lots of water while traveling will help you recover from jetlag faster. The humidity on an airplane can be as low as 10%. On long flights this can become a big problem.

Jet lag affects you differently depending on how many time zones you are crossing and in what direction you are traveling. Let’s say that Sally and Tommy are meeting in New York for business. Sally is in Los Angeles and Tommy is in London. Sally leaves LA at noon and arrives in New York at 9pm. Because it is only 6pm back on the west coast, Sally isn’t tired at all, and can’t get to sleep until 1am. She arrives at the meeting tired and restless because of her poor night’s sleep. Tommy leaves London at 5pm and arrives in New York at 8pm. By that time it’s already 1am in London, so he’s exhausted and goes to bed right away. Because he went to bed early by New York standards, he arrives at the meeting well rested and ready to take on the day.

This example is assuming that neither of them slept during the flight, which is the most effective way to prevent jet lag. I know this because I experience jetlag more when I’m working and have to stay up the whole time verses when I’m a passenger and can sleep at my leisure. If Sally had taken a nap on her flight, she would have already caught up on some of the hours of sleep she’s going to miss that night. For Tommy, he would have been able to stay up on his arrival in New York and maybe enjoy some of the sights before retiring at a reasonable hour.

Of course, we can’t all sleep on planes, especially in economy. If you aren’t able to sleep on the plane, there are things you can do to help reset your clock:

  1. When making travel plans, give yourself a day to recover before you jump into your business meeting or vacation.
  2. It’s ok to be off balance when you first arrive. If you’re not tired even though it’s dark, stay up (the bars in New York are open till 4am).
  3. If you are tired even if you get there in the middle of the day, go to sleep.
  4. Be sure that you are exposed to the natural light and dark cycle of your destination. This means that when you go to sleep, keep the curtains open. When on a layover I usually sleep with the curtains open, and I find that I wake with the sun, even if I didn’t get the same amount of sleep I normally do.
  5. The next day, go to sleep at a normal hour. It sounds like it might be difficult, but if you do what I say and make sure you keep the curtains open, you should be able to adjust to the new time zone easily. Also, make sure that you keep yourself busy during the day. If you’re on vacation, make plans to do some light sight seeing.

Jetlag doesn’t just cause disruption in your sleep cycle.

When you experience jetlag, you also experience hunger cravings at odd times. The simple solution to this is to snack. If you feel hungry in the middle of the night, eat something like a granola bar to hold you over until breakfast. I’ve had many nights in Narita where I was starving in the middle of the night when all the restaurants and grocery stores were closed. Most countries will allow you to bring in dry goods such as trail mix or dried fruits. Avoid bringing fresh fruits or dairy as these items could be confiscated.

Finally, drinking lots of water while traveling will help you to recover from jetlag faster. The humidity on an airplane can be as low as ten percent. On long flights this can become a really big problem. Most airlines serve a beverage at least every hour-and-a-half to two hours on long haul flights. You should supplement that by bringing your own water on board. I recommend at least thirty-two ounces. You can either buy a bottle inside the terminal or fill up your own bottle (Nalgene bottles work great) once you get past security. Avoid caffeinated drinks or alcohol, as these will dehydrate you.

Next time you travel you can be rest assured, or assured of rest, by following the simple guidelines I’ve covered. First and foremost, try to sleep on the plane. If you can’t make sure that you plan your trip so you have a day that you can rest. Keep yourself exposed to the natural light and dark cycles of your destination. Drink plenty of water, and make sure you bring some snacks along for the midnight hunger strike. It’s easy, and in no time you’ll go from jet lag, to no lag.