Beating the dreaded jetlag
It’s dark, your hotel room is perfectly cool, the sheets are crisp and silence reigns – the perfect conditions for sleep. You, however, are wide eyed, staring at the ceiling and despite the rigours of a long journey, as far from sleep as it is possible to get in the middle of the night. You’ve got the curse of all long haul travellers, the dreaded jetlag.
Trips to Australia and New Zealand take jetlag to the extreme. The sun rises just as you would normally be falling into bed, ensuring that your body clock is well and truly out of synch with the new time reality.
But even a shorter trip to New York, just six hours behind, can result in some serious sleep deprivation as you awake, totally alert, in the early hours but find yourself barely capable of coherent thought by mid afternoon.
Some experts claim that for every hour of time difference, you need a day to readjust your internal clock, which means you’re likely to be home before you’re sleeping well.
Most people don’t take quite that long, but even the most optimistic sleep experts agree that a minimum of three or four days is needed to feel human again. But there are also some easy ways to minimise the effect and speed up your recovery.
Adjust before you go
For three or four nights before your departure, it’s worth altering your bedtime and morning alarm towards the time zone in your destination. Moving your meal times will help too as they form part of the body’s natural cycle of sleeping and waking.
Choose your flight carefully
If you are one of those envy-inducing people who get on the plane, put on the eye shades and sleep like a baby for the entire journey, then an overnight flight is best. You’ll arrive at your destination in the morning better prepared to survive the long day that should be your night.
If, however, you tend to spend the entire flight wide awake, numbly watching the in-flight entertainment, you should opt for a day flight; you’ll arrive in the evening so exhausted that your body will give in to sleep no matter what time of day your internal clock thinks it is.
Reset your watch en route
Instead of thinking about what time it is at your departure zone, think ahead (or behind) to your destination. It will help you to adjust psychologically.
Eat light meals or not at all
Your digestive system is about to undergo a major reconfiguration, potentially having to deal with a big dinner at breakfast time and vice versa. Flying also slows digestion down. So eat as lightly as you can and try to avoid foods like meat which are difficult to digest.
There is also some evidence to suggest that if you fast on the plane when it’s night at your destination, then eat when you arrive, your body clock will be quicker at resetting itself.
Just say no
Drinking yourself into oblivion for free is pretty tempting in a cramped airline cabin, but alcohol (and caffeine) disturb natural sleep patterns and make you dehydrated. Puritanical as it may seem, grit your teeth and refuse the wine.
Water, water, water
Long flights will cause you to become dehydrated due to the dry air, making you feel rough when you arrive and compounding sleep problems. Drink as much water as you can before, during and after the flight. It really makes a big difference.
Limit the catnaps
The lure of a soft bed at 4 p.m. when you are bleary with fatigue is almost impossible to resist, but long naps just compound the problem by confusing your body clock and making it even more likely that you’ll be counting sheep at 4 a.m.
Try not to sleep until bedtime, but if you really have to close your eyes, set your alarm and try to limit your naps to half an hour.
If it’s critical that you get over jetlag quickly, then it might be worth investing in some light therapy. Biobrite in the USsell the Jet Lag Combat Kit which claims to reset your bodyclock through a light box and dark glasses which you use at specific times depending on your destination.
The kit doesn’t come cheap though at around €200 so just getting out and about during the day in the sunshine might be a cheaper alternative.
Pop a pill
Drugs such as melatonin might help to ward off jet lag. Melatonin occurs naturally in the body and helps to regulate our circadian rhythms of sleeping and waking. The supplement is not as strong as a sleeping pill but can help your body to wind down.
If you really suffer from horrible jetlag, ask your doctor whether melatonin or an alternative might help you. Beware of driving after the flight however.
Go out and party
If your body is craving sleep at 6 p.m. because it thinks it’s nearly midnight, it’s time to party. The stimulation of a night out on the town will keep you awake until a more natural bedtime and then with a bit of luck, you’ll be so exhausted that you’ll sleep until morning. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s more fun than light boxes and sleeping pills.
If the last thing you feel like doing is hitting a bar, try the gym instead in the afternoon or visit some local sights. You should avoid strenuous exercise just before bedtime though.