I've been a little bit quiet here for awhile, in part because of the topic of this post: travel and jet lag. A few weeks back I had the fortune of being flown by one of the world's top companies from Vietnam to San Francisco for a day in their very sweet offices, then I promptly flew half way around the world back to South East Asia.
Let me break the journey down for you a little bit: I was in Hoi An on the central coast of Vietnam. I departed Hoi An on a Saturday at noon and arrived in Hanoi about an hour later. I had twelve hours in Hanoi and at 11:30 in the evening, I flew to Seoul, arriving at about 5 in the morning local time. I had a 12 hour layover in Seoul and then I boarded an eleven hour flight to San Francisco where I arrived on Sunday at noon. Including layovers, we're talking close to 30 hours in transit. On Monday I had my meeting from 10 am until 5 pm. On Tuesday morning I got back on a plane and flew 15 hours to Hong Kong where I had a three hour layover, and then I took the shorter hop to Bangkok, arrving at midnight on Wednesday.
Given this intensive traveling schedule, plus the need to be in good form when I arrived in San Francisco, I set out to do a little bit of research on some of the best ways to combat jet lag.
The Truth About Jet Lag
Jet lag is the result of a number of factors. Most obviously, it is caused from the simple fatigue of being awake for long periods of time with opportunities for only limited poor quality sleep. For those people crossing date lines and moving from day into night into day it is also disorienting and disrupts our circadian rhythm, which is that bit of our internal compass that gauges what our body is meant to be doing based on our responsiveness to light. Finally, there are physiological stresses caused by being forced to keep your body basically immobile for hours at a time - often in cramped conditions - the dry, cool, recirculated air in a plane, the generally low quality, high sodium foods (which help to contribute to dehydration) and even the benefits like watching films on an entertainment unit in a dark space can cause your eyes to burn.
Travel is wonderful, but long haul flights can wreak havoc on your body and can take days and even weeks to recover from. The sad truth of the matter is that how you react to jet lag very much depends on your unique physiology, but there are some things you can do to try to minimize the discomfort and exhaustion your body will experience.
How to be a Jet Lag Conqueror
#1 If you can, pick a good airport for your layovers
The biggest thing that saved me on this long journey was a factor that people often don't have the ability to control: my twelve hour layover en route to San Francisco was in the Seoul Incheon Airport, which is incredibly well equipped to deal with stranded travelers. This was by far the best airport experience I've ever had with an entire system of amenities and comforts designed for my needs including: free hot private showers, free wifi and even a bank of computers available for use, a television/movie room and a chill out area with lounger style couches you are invited to lay down and sleep on. There is also a vast array of good eating choices, a pharmacy, plenty of shops to keep you busy and, if all of the above isn't enough, you can book into their on-site hotel on an hourly basis at fairly reasonable rates (I didn't do this because I was pretty happy with the range of freebies).
In contrast, the day before I spent ten hours in the Hanoi airport. It was cold, the bathrooms were few and far between, there was no airport map to even work out what services were available, the food choices were limited, poor quality and over priced, the service was quite abrupt, and there was nowhere comfortable to sit. It was a nightmare airport for anyone stuck there for any length of time.
My time in Seoul passed quickly and it involved lots of naps, good food and a hot shower. It isn't always possible to be choosy, but if you have a long layover and you have a choice of airports to be stuck in, do some research and try to pick the one that will offer you the most comfort.
#2 Stay Hydrated
Airplanes and airports are dry places. They're filled with extensively hot or cold air that is circulated and then recirculated throughout the space with no moisture added. Add to this the reality that airplane and airport food tends to be high in salt and preservatives and that most long haul flights serve free booze and your skin and insides are basically being turned into this:
Drinking water and avoiding caffeine and alcohol will go a long way towards keeping your body hydrated, which should keep everything running smoothly and help you avoid the dreaded jet lag hangover, which I suspect has as much to do with dehydration as with fatigue.
If possible, I always buy a big bottle of overpriced water once I'm through security to take on the flight with me - unfortunately sometimes my good efforts are thwarted by secondary security screenings that are added without warning right before boarding. I also try to reserve an aisle seat, which allows me the freedom of multiple trips to the bathroom without annoying my neighbours.
"Stay hydrated as much as possible and when you arrive at your destination, do NOT go to sleep. Instead, walk around...go sightseeing...keep yourself busy. Otherwise, you will go to the hotel, fall asleep and miss half of the day. I think your body has to adjust to the time change organically, so switching gears to the new time zone will be a kinder transition for your body and will prevent jet lag." Renee King, A View to a Thrill.
#3 When you Arrive at Your Destination Don't Sleep Until an Appropriate Time
Or if you do, set your alarm and make sure it's just a short nap to keep you from crashing into things.
This can be incredibly hard, especially if you arrive at your destination in the morning or early afternoon, because it means that you have an entire day to get through. But understand that if you succumb to that sweet urge to pull the blinds and sleep the day away, you will likely spend the entire night wandering, cursing and watching infomercials on television. And then you'll find yourself just as exhausted and out of synch the following day.
When I arrived in San Francisco at noon I had a 45 minute rest and then I forced myself to get up and go for a long walk. The sunshine, the fresh air and the motion made me feel at least partially present in my new time zone and as a result I was able to go to sleep at 9 in the evening and sleep right through until nearly 7 am.
#4 Take Advantage of the Free Facial Product Samples in the Duty Free Shops
This is one of my favorite tips and it is linked to staying hydrated. With security regulations about flying with liquids and gels, it is really hard to bring enough supplies to keep everything moisturized for a long haul journey. I see Duty Free Shops as my answer to this problem and generally, they are so busy that the shop clerks leave you alone to test products to your heart's content.
My skin care regime is decidedly drug store, but Duty Free has everything from Body Shop brands to high end La Mer, Dior and everything in-between - and best of all, there are samples of all of these things just waiting to be tried out. During my latest marathon trip, I developed a routine in every new airport of first heading to the bathroom to wash my face, then directly to Duty Free where I generally used a light alcohol free toner or spritzer to refresh my skin, followed by any number of lovely, creamy products to make my skin feel loved. And don't forget to take care of your hands too. Many Duty Free Shops also carry little sample kits that you can pick up fairly inexpensively if you want to bring some of the luxury with you onto your flight.
But please, on behalf of fellow allergy sufferers everywhere, stay away from the perfumes. It is not a good idea to test drive pungent chemical smells before climbing into a tiny enclosed space where dozens of people will be forced to smell you for hours.
#5 Bring Supplies
Planning is key to having a good flying experience. Noisy children and snoring neighbours are a factor of flying and it is your job to make sure you are well positioned to deal with them. My list of must have items includes:
- Earplugs or noise canceling headphones (that are comfortable)
- An eye mask to block out light if you decide to try and sleep
- A small bottle of thick lotion for hands and face
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- An iPod with podcasts and relaxing ambient sounds (ocean sounds are my favorite)
- Something to read for when you can't use electronic devices
- A neck pillow
- If you are prone to sinus headaches when flying like I am, it's good to keep some kleenex and some Tylenol on hand
#6 Wear Loose Clothing
I am always surprised when I see people wearing tight fitting clothing on a long haul flight, especially tights, pantyhose or tight jeans. When you're on a plane, sitting still for hours, your body fluids actually pool in your feet and legs and this can cause swelling. You can help to counter act this by taking the time to get up and move around every few hours and by not wearing anything that will cut off your circulation.
Years ago one of my best friends and I had a conversation that concluded with the resolution that if you go out in public wearing pajama bottoms or sweat pants and the gym isn't involved, you've given up. Seriously. There's no excuse to go for groceries in your Looney Tunes pajamas. But I would add one other exception to this rule and that's long haul flights. Unless you're Victoria Beckham and are expecting a flood of paparazzi at the other end, dress for comfort. And I suspect even she brings a change of comfortable clothes to wear during the flight.
#7 Rest Your Eyes
On long haul flights I always wrestle with a strange, almost obsessive desire to watch movies for the entire flight. One of the first things I do after getting up in the air is scroll through the movie listings to plan what I'm going to watch. Under normal circumstances, I would probably never watch more than one movie in a row, but in an airplane I can watch four, even six movies. Bad movies. The romantic comedies that I would never, ever choose to watch in my life off-airplane.
On my last set of flights I resisted this inclination and only watches a few movies, spreading them out with breaks over the duration of the flight and it made such a difference to the condition of my eyes when I landed. Instead of having red, stinging eyes, I was mostly okay. Remember when your mom told you that it's bad to watch television in the dark? Well, it's extra bad to watch television in the dark for ten hours, in an environment where your eyes are dry, with your face about a foot and a half away from the screen.
The latest Jennifer Aniston movie will still be there waiting for you, whether or not you manage to catch it on your long haul flight.
#8 Don't Boredom Eat
This list of tips should really be called 'The List of Things I Almost Always Do When Flying That Make Me Sick Yet I Continue to do Them ... Over and Over Again" but that wouldn't be very catchy. Everything about being in an airplane or airport is designed to bore you. There is nothing to do but wait and then wait some more. Add to this that you are probably psychologically between six different time zones and your body doesn't know whether it's time for breakfast or cocktail hour and it is really easy to try to make time move by eating.
It also doesn't help that it feels like airlines are always trying to feed you on long haul flights. First it's nuts and cookies, then it's dinner and desert, a few hours later there's usually a light snack, followed shortly by breakfast ... and all of this is interspersed by opportunities to drink sugary or boozy drinks. I used to accept everything offered to me by a flight attendant, even dinners that I knew contained things that were completely unappealing to me. And then I'd feel guilty about wasting food and would eat what I was given, despite a complete lack of enjoyment.
How often do you normally eat during an average day? Try to keep track of 24 hour intervals and don't allow yourself to eat much more then you would in your regular, non long haul flight routine. All that food isn't good for you and it will add to your feeling of bloat and dehydration once you land. Think of all the nice things you can have when your journey is over - it is usually worth the wait.
"Not often talked about when discussing jet lag are toiletry routines. Some people say “ I don’t get jet lag, but boy I haven’t been to the loo for a coupe of days”!! This is jet-lag!! Whatever is required get your system operating fully – I always take before departure and on arrival “Metamucil” which prevents the buildup of too much wind in your system. The build-up of wind can be a major issue during long flights!! Lovely subject!" John, France - the French Way
How It Went
Despite my crazy schedule, it only took me about 24 hours to recover from my whirlwind travel schedule once I was back in Thailand. I won't be lining up to take on that kind of back to back long haul travel again for awhile but I generally think that being just a little bit more aware of the things I can do to help my body adjust while traveling made a huge difference.
Do you have any tips to beat jet lag? I'd love to hear them in the comments.