Mar 30, 2009
My mum recently went to visit my sister in California, and asked me (and her, and everyone else she knew who’d ever been on a plane, I think) for tips on how to beat the dreaded jetlag. I’ve just seen a tweet from a friend (just returned from the other side of the planet and unable to sleep) asking for advice on same, so I thought I’d dig out the notes I sent to my mum and share them here.
I’m not an internationally-recognised sleep expert, but I have spent (what feels like) a lot of the last few years adjusting my body clock. Regular trips in my last job between London and Washington meant there was no room for recovery – I needed to be up and perky the next morning for meetings, wherever I was, so I got quite good at figuring out how to retrain my natural rhythms (before retraining them back a couple of days later.
Note: This method works well for me (including recent adjustments to/from -8hrs, +11hrs & +13hrs). However, everyone is different – your mileage may vary! No guarantees, no warrantees, no manatees.
Note #2: If you’re sleepless after returning home, and reading this, it’s already too late. You have to start beating it before you come home.
Note #3: The example timezone change given in this illustration is -8 hours (i.e. from UK to West coast US/Canada) so obviously different timings are needed for other journeys, though the principles should be the same. If you’re going the other direction, reverse the instructions.
Jetlag side-effects include being:
- confused about time
- confused generally
- some people feel nauseous or have an upset stomach (because of changing eating patterns)
- some people feel like crying for no reason (it’s quite stressful!)
- aching or twitching/restless limbs
- false sense of security – even when you think you’ve beaten it, you can still be floored by it a day later.
In brief, the trick is to localise as soon as possible. I try to do this from the moment I board the plane, if not slightly before. Travel global; think local (time). Or, as I tend to think of it: Live in the now, wherever now is (i.e. find out what time it is where you are – or where you’re going – and act appropriately for that time). Discipline is key: find a schedule and stick to it, even if your body protests (though be gentle and flexible with yourself the first couple of days in each direction).
The basic rule of thumb is that it takes 1 day for your body to get used to each hour of time difference, in either direction. Air and light and regular patterns really help with this, so I think you can usually halve it, at least. That means that though the first day may be dreadful, you’ll feel heaps more normal within just a few days.
LOSING TIME (i.e. on the way there)
- As soon as you get on the plane, reset your watch to the time it is in your destination (e.g. 8 hours earlier).
- Look at your watch occasionally and try and tell yourself that it is that time. Don’t try and figure out what time it is “really” – the REAL time is where you are and what your watch says. Forget your homeland! So even though you might get on the plane at 8am in the UK, at 8.01 you’ll reset your watch, and then you need to tell yourself it’s only 3.01am.
- Act accordingly. What would you usually be doing at 3am? You’d be asleep! So try to sleep for a few hours as soon as you get on the plane. They should provide you with an eyemask, but if they don’t, I find a scarf works just as well.
- The key thing to do is to act normally to fool your body clock into resetting. Use your home schedule as a guide.
I usually wake up at…..
I usually have breakfast at…..
I usually have lunch at…..
I usually have dinner at…..
I usually go to bed at…..
- Eat and sleep at the appropriate time (not when you’re hungry, though it’s ok to have a little snack or a biscuit or oatcake or something if your tummy’s rumbling). So look at your watch, and if it says 5am and you usually are asleep at that time, then close your eyes and try to sleep. If it says “8am” and you usually eat at 8am, then have something to eat. This isn’t all possible on the plane, when the crew feed you when it’s most appropriate to the schedule (“here’s some dinner, even though we’re going to be giving you breakfast in three hours!”), but it’s very possible when you arrive.
- On the flight, wear compression stockings or support tights, and go for frequent walks up and down the plane. Try to go for a little walk and stretch every couple of hours. Drink lots of water: it will hydrate you, which helps with headaches, and it will make you need to go to the loo, which means a walk, which is good.
- Also on the flight, avoid alcohol (yes, I know it’s free: resist!) and caffiene (yes, I know you’re bored: resist!) because these variously stimulate/depress your natural rhythm. Actually, I tend to avoid alcohol at altitude because it gives me a massive dehydration headache, mostly.
- When you arrive, it’ll be late afternoon in California (GMT-8hrs) (and that means your body will think it’s the wee small hours of the morning origin-time). You’ll be very tired, but try not too go to sleep straight away.
- Have a shower as soon as you can – you’ll feel much MUCH better – and something to eat if it’s eating time. You may well feel like you’ve done nothing but eat over the last day or so. Sorry.
- If you can, go for a walk – light exercise, fresh air and seeing natural light (or natural darkness) will help a lot with resetting circadian rhythms. I know it sounds odd, but whether you’re on the plane or on the ground, try and see daylight and sunset, because it’ll help convince your body what the time is. If you arrive in darkness, it’ll be a bit harder, but not too bad.
- Stay awake that first evening as long as you can, until it approaches the hour at which you normally go to sleep at home. I usually end up crumbling (well, wibbling nonsensically and drooling) at about 9.30-10pm. Go to bed and sleeeeeeeeeeeep. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll basically pass out immediately.
- The next morning, you’ll wake up stupidly early – 1am, 2am or so. This is because even though you’re knackered, your body thinks it’s mid-morning, and is raring to go. DO NOT BE FOOLED INTO GETTING UP. Try and go back to sleep for a bit. If that doesn’t work, stay in bed and try reading something or doing a crossword or listening to quiet music or watching the home shopping network or rolling news station and then have a nap if you can drop off. Try not to eat anything until a more sensible hour, like 5am. It won’t get light there until about 6am, and remember, you’re trying to reset your body clock, so moving with the light is important.
- By the time the rest of the locals get up, you’ll have been awake for hours and raring to go.
- Do normal things that day. Eat breakfast (this may well be the second breakfast you’ve had that day, if you had a snack at dawn) and lunch at the right times and go for walks etc, but try and get lots of fresh air and light.
- You’ll find that you are probably pretty perky and energetic in the morning, and then suddenly slump to tiredness by teatime. Try to push on through until a normal bedtime (or at least, a little later than the night before).
- Within 2-3 days, you’ll be going to bed at the usual time and waking up at the usual time. But don’t beat yourself up or get frustrated or annoyed if you can’t settle into a normal rhythm quickly.
GAINING TIME (i.e. on the way back)
Same thing, but in reverse, sort of.
- When you get on the plane, reset your watch to the time it currently is in the place the plane will touch down.
- Try to sleep at the right time, even if you’re not tired on the plane, especially on the overnight leg. One way to help this is to get up nice and early on the morning of your departure (like, even 5am) to help start the readjustment and ensure you’re sleepy when you get on the overnight leg.
- In fact, on an overnight flight, just get on, reset your watch and go to sleep as soon as you can, and don’t worry about what the flight crew want to do (they’ll probably be trying to give you dinner and sell you perfumes). If you can get some sleep – even a few hours – on the overnight leg, you’ll be laughing. If you can’t sleep, do calming, restful things, go for quiet little walks down the aisles, stretch and drink water, before going back and reading your book or listening to music. Audiobooks are particularly good at helping you to “space out” with your eyes closed.
- They will wake you up when you’re coming into land, and it will feel like you’ve had about 12 minutes rest. Sorry. But look at your watch! It’s nearly breakfast time! Accept and eat the muffin and orange juice they thrust at you and eat it, even if your body is saying “Nooooo! IT IS NOT BREKKIE TIME”
- When you get off the plane, have a good stretch, get a bottle of water and get your luggage. If you’re getting on another method of transport straight after (e.g. train or tube), it’s ok to have a nap on the train, but try not to sleep for longer than an hour or two, or you’ll be even more thrown off.
- Throughout the day, stretch your legs, go for little walks; get lots of daylight. Try to see the sunset, if you can (perfect would be going for a walk just before and just after sunset).
- Stay awake until bedtime (think about normal routines, not what it feels like. If you usually go to sleep at 11pm” and it’s 10.55pm, start brushing your teeth and winding down.
- When it comes to bedtime in your nice quiet big comfy bed, and despite being eye-rollingly exhausted just a few hours earlier, you may not be tired enough to sleep. Curses! Nevertheless, try to get some rest.
- You may find that you don’t sleep well that night, or not until very late – 3 or 4am – (although I usually find that a crap night’s sleep on a plane makes it remarkably easy to drop off the next night at home). Don’t beat yourself up about it: just read and do restful, quiet things, possibly on the sofa (because there’s nothing worse than lying in bed unable to sleep).
- THIS IS IMPORTANT! However much (or little) you sleep that first night back at home, your body will try and make you sleep in for a long time. While you can probably give yourself a break (lie in until 10 or 11), do make sure you get up before lunchtime. Set your alarm for 11 if you need to. Otherwise you’re just compounding the problem further.
- As soon as possible, try and return to your usual rhythm – eat and sleep at the right times, get lots of natural daylight and fresh air, and don’t be surprised if it takes you a good few days to feel normal again.
Some additional tips for longhaul flights:
– Drink lots of water before, on board and after. I usually drink about a litre and a half (about 10 cups) of water on board a 10 hour flight. Not all at once, though! You don’t need to bring this with you (though I tend to buy a bottle in the shop after security and before departure) as you can go to the galley at any time and ask for a glass of water.
– Avoid caffiene and alcohol – they dehydrate you and give you a headache at altitude
– Avoid fizzy drinks (even fizzy water) because they can make you bloat and fart. True.
– Remember that you can take small (under 50ml) toiletries onto the plane in a clear plastic sealable bag. I try to pack a small rich moisturiser (like Simple or vitamin E), some hand cream (to massage hands if they feel puffed up), and lip balm (or a little pot of vaseline works for the latter two). Before I get on the plane, and throughout the flight, I frequently apply moisturiser to my face – it prevents that dessicated feeling which is so horrible. I also have a pack of wet-ones (or boots equivalent) because they can be good for an in-seat refresher.
– Dress in layers. Flights are always under- or over-heated, sometimes chronically. The temp may change during the flight, too, so keep layers handy. I never travel without a big scarf/pashmina (though mine’s just cotton weave) which can subsitute as a wrap, pillow or (crucially!) blanket.
– The blankets on planes are rubbish and filled with static and make your hair stand on end. Avoid if possible.
– Don’t wear anything too restrictive or synthetic – avoid socks with tight tops or things with buttons which may ride up or be uncomfortably tight if you bloat a bit. These days I try and travel in yoga (or cotton) trousers, a cotton, stretch-material comfy short sleeved top, a long cardigan and a wide scarf, with a spare pair of socks and pants in my hand luggage, because if you get delayed at any point, it can be a lifesaver to be able to put in clean pants and socks.
Any more tips? Please share!