Jet lag is the necessary evil of international travel. Or is it? Here, David shares the approach he’s refined over the years to minimise the effects of jet lag – and sometimes, prevent it entirely.
Jet lag is the worst. Being wide awake in the middle of the night whilst the world sleeps is rarely a pleasant experience. Similarly, being unable to keep your eyes open in the middle of the afternoon is not very helpful, especially if you have to go back to work the day after you return from your trip.
Cities that 'never sleep' can still be lonely places when you're suffering from jet lag.
Know your enemy
First, the key to beating jet lag is understanding why it happens. It all comes down to sleep. Considering sleep takes up a third of our lives, it’s a surprise that research into why we sleep and how we improve it has really only taken off in the last couple of decades. If you’re at all interested, I’d strongly recommend picking up Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s an essential for insomniacs (or recovering insomniacs like myself). As well as being an entertaining (but scientifically robust) read, it will completely change the way you view sleep. It’s not my intention to regurgitate all of Walker’s insights here. To beat jet lag, you just need to understand two concepts: circadian rhythms and adenosine.
Our circadian rhythms are hard-wired into us from an early age. Pretty much as soon as a baby starts sleeping through the night, their circadian rhythm has been established. Circadian rhythms are largely determined by our exposure to sunlight. We’re awake when it’s light and asleep when it’s dark. Experts agree that the best thing you can do to improve the quality of your sleep is to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. Of course, this is a problem when you’re flying into a different time zone.
The other thing you need to know about is adenosine. This is a chemical that is accumulating in our bodes the whole time we’re awake. From the moment we wake up, adenosine starts building up. When there’s enough of it, it’s what tells the body to put us in sleep mode. Nothing prevents the build up of adenosine. Not even caffeine. Caffeine just blocks the receptors for adenosine. In the meantime, the adenosine keeps building up. That’s why we suddenly crash when we’ve taken caffeine to keep ourselves awake for a few more hours. The adenosine dam bursts and there’s nothing we can do to keep our eyes open.
Caffeine stays in our systems for up to 12 hours. You might not want that complimentary cup at the start of your flight. Maybe wait until you arrive at your destination.
How to beat it
STEP ONE. Start to reset your circadian rhythm as soon as you’re on the plane. That means: Adjust your watch/phone to the time in your destination. If you’re going East, this means you’re going into the future. If you’re going West, you’re going into the past. And you don’t even need a DeLorean.
STEP TWO. As far as is realistically possible, live your in-flight life according to this new time. This might mean thinking of breakfast as lunch or lunch as breakfast or, if you’re on a long haul, dinner as breakfast or breakfast as dinner. Yes, it’s confusing at first, and it doesn’t really matter what you label your meals. The key thing is this: start thinking like you’ve already arrived in your destination.
STEP THREE. If you should be asleep in your new time zone, get some sleep. If you should be awake in your new time zone, try to stay awake.
Getting some sleep
This is easier said than done on a plane. For most of us, a bed in Business Class isn’t an option. And on the occasions I’ve tried it, I’ve not been convinced it’s worth it. Whatever seat you’re trying to get some sleep in, neck pillows will give you some support: I’ve tried a few over the years and found the super lightweight TRTL one to be the best.
Avoid caffeine. There’s some fascinating stuff in Why We Sleep that will make you see every cup of coffee or tea differently. I love coffee, but even I avoid it if I plan to sleep in the ensuing 6 hours. In fact, after reading these really scary studies, I tend to only drink it in the morning (caffeine stays in your system for 12 hours).
Don’t use anything with a screen. The blue light of smartphones and tablets is especially bad for keeping us awake. It’s effectively like staring into a sunny sky. Not good if you want to tell your brain it’s night time. If you crave entertainment, read or listen to music instead.
If your adenosine levels are low (I.E., you hadn’t been awake for very long in your before you boarded), don’t panic about not being able to sleep. Worrying about not sleeping is the best way to banish sleep entirely.
One of Headspace’s 10 minute meditation exercises is designed especially for people who have trouble sleeping on planes. You can download it on their app but I discovered it on the entertainment system on a Virgin Atlantic flight. It did the trick for me: I only remember the first 4 minutes of it. Andy Puddicombe has a really calming voice. Zzzz.
For many people, this is a bigger challenge than getting to sleep. I’m not suggesting anyone goes to dangerous extremes of sleep deprivation, especially if you’re intending to drive when you get to your destination. But if it’s safe to do so, stay awake.
Pretty much do the reverse of everything above. Temporarily block those adenosine receptors with a cup of coffee or tea (as long as you don’t intend to get some sleep in the next 6+ hours). Use the onboard entertainment system. I recently watched five films on my way back from Shanghai because I knew it would be late in the afternoon when we landed in the UK (but past sundown back in Shanghai). I can think of worse ways to make sure I spend the whole day awake than catching up on recent releases I’ve missed at the cinema.
And it’s not just on the plane you should stay awake. If it’s 7am when you arrive, the worst thing you could do is go straight to bed. As long as you’re not driving or operating heavy machinery, stay awake as long as you can. Keep busy. Best of all: go outside in the sunlight. This will help to convince your body that it’s really daytime even if it’s midnight where you originally boarded the plane. If you’re in New York, don’t book a Broadway show for your first day, unless you want to fall asleep through most of it. Maybe plan to be in and around Central Park instead. Or go for a walk along the Brooklyn Bridge before it gets busy.
Staying in the sunlight helps reset your circadian rhythm and keeps you awake
STEP FOUR. Accept that your circadian rhythm might be a bit ‘off’ for the next few days. Usually, it takes 24 hours to change your circadian rhythm by 1 hour. So, if you flew 7 hours into the future to Hong Kong from London, it would ordinarily take a full week for your circadian rhythm to adjust from GMT (London) to GMT +7 (Hong Kong). If you’ve followed the steps above, you have hopefully given your circadian rhythm a head start.
Even so, don’t be surprised if you find yourself with the irresistible urge to sleep at an unusual time. On our most recent visit to Hong Kong, we experienced just that. We went straight from the airport to Hong Kong Disneyland. Helpfully, they are close to each other, meaning we weren’t inside forms of transport for that long. We thought we had gotten away with it completely – no jet lag! And then, after a morning of attractions and a light lunch, it hit us. Our adenosine dams had burst. We went back to the hotel, climbed beneath the sheets – and woke up at 6am the next day, completely refreshed!
Arrival in Hong Kong: You too can perfect that 'just flown halfway around the world' look.
Must. Keep. Eyes. Open.
It’s not always been this easy though. I have vivid memories of being wide awake through the night in Tokyo when we visited the first time. I didn’t follow any of the steps I’ve outlined here and I paid the price. But even if you do find yourself staring out the hotel window at 4am, there’s no point getting down about it. Look at it this way: in an hour or so, it will be dawn. You’re not jetlagged: you’re staying up to watch the sunrise. And what about that fish market everyone raves about: isn’t that opening soon? My backup plan for waking up absurdly early is going for a run with the locals before all the tourists descend.
Going for a run when few other people are around. There ARE upsides to jet lag after all.
Being up at the crack of dawn (or even before) in a new city can give you more of a locals' perspective.
There’s lots more that can be said about jet lag, but the steps above are what I have found work for me. You might have your own tried and tested methods. If so, please leave them in the Comments section below.