There are surely as many ways of coping and alleviating the problems caused by jet lag as there are travellers. That’s why what follows is based on my own experiences, and it should not be considered a universally applicable prescription on how to overcome the full spectrum of jet lag problems. Sleep issues in particular are highly individual; for some it’s enough to shut the eyes to fall asleep, for others sleep won’t come by any means. In the dark hours of the night, I myself plan my clothing for the next month, imagine the interior decoration of future apartments, read two books at a time, and sometimes even shed a tear or two, absolutely convinced that everyone else in the world is sleeping and poor me is the only one awake. Breakfast, however, often casts a new perspective on an unfortunate night, when some colleague yawns in exhaustion.
How do we overcome jet lag? In my view, good physical condition and a reasonably healthy diet will help you through a hard working day. When I’m home, I try to exercise for an hour or so a day. This may sometimes take the form of walking the dog, sometimes the gym, and sometimes an extended session of shovelling snow. I take care to eat a varied diet and make sure I consume all the key nutrients. I sleep a lot. I meet people who give me positive energy. At home, taking care of myself is easy.
When travelling, the truth is quiet otherwise. Sleeping is a carefully considered art about which everyone develops their own perspective. When flying westward, I can’t go immediately to sleep, even though when our New York flight lands the internal clock suggests it’s late in the evening. The mistake of falling directly into bed would mean waking up in the early hours of the morning. But it can be hard to stay awake when your body’s screaming ‘sleep’. Although I’m rather apprehensive about making, in typical flight attendant fashion, bad shopping decisions and unsustainable purchases, it’s worth even so getting out of the hotel room, because in that way it is significantly easier to stay awake. Fresh air is good after a long flight. Before departing on the return flight I always take a nap. The flight from New York leaves at midnight Finnish time, and for sure it really starts to feel like it. Coffee is hard currency, even though it’s more sensible, of course, to drink lots of water and replace coffee with green tea.
When the flight direction is eastward, towards Asia, I consider it best to go to sleep right away. A few hours’ sleep helps get you through until the evening, but with a bit of luck this won’t disturb your night’s sleep. Some people, on the other hand, don’t go to sleep at all but battle through to the evening, with the guarantee of really good night’s sleep. But jet lag affects everyone, whatever time they go to sleep. When, according to your internal clock, it’s bright outside at the wrong time, the body’s melatonin production doesn’t work as it should. You feel confused and easily lose your train of thought. In this state, I’m not so keen on exercising or eating, rather I’m more aware of how I feel.
Even though my exercise gear travels with me around the world, I don’t go and punish myself in the gym if I’m too tired. If my let-lag hangover needs the city’s biggest hamburger, then I shamelessly eat it. If the best option seems to be lying in bed all day, then I do it. I always buy for the hotel room some snack or other in case I wake up in the night. I ensure I have enough water bottles and something restful to do in the form of books or a laptop. Evolution has not yet adapted people (even flight attendants) to cross time zones haphazardly, so I try not to be too hard on myself.
Everyone finds their own way of coping with time differences only after travelling in their work for some time or when otherwise flying frequently. It’s difficult to know in advance just how your body will react to cumulative fatigue and jet lag.
Pilots have no time to become accustomed to jet lag. For us, the most important thing is to be fully alert during the flight, particularly during take-off and landing. Passengers, on the other hand, can use the flight time for rest.
The same means, however, are effective for staying alert and coping with jet lag.
1. It’s worth beginning the transition to the new time zone already at home: the earlier, the better. When travelling to Asia, wake up and go to sleep earlier and earlier. When travelling west, sleep longer and go later to bed. Generally, staying awake is easier than forcing yourself to go to sleep. You can help bring on tiredness, however, with heavy exercise (for example, a long jog or swim).
2. Also when travelling, it’s worth “living the new time” and using the opportunity presented by the flight to rest as much as possible. Particularly with eastward flights, Finnair timetables support the transition to the new time zone, if the flight is used for rest. Resting horizontally in a business class seat, of course, clearly gives better quality rest. The normal decline in alertness in the afternoon can also be utilised by taking a half-hour nap. I don’t recommend longer naps, however, because it’s tricky waking up from deep, REM sleep.
3. Alertness can be improved by low-level exercise (e.g. walking, stretching), bright lighting (genuine daylight is best), eating lightly (e.g. fruit), caffeine-containing drinks (avoiding sugar overload) and with mental-agility tasks (crosswords, sudokus etc.).
4. I don’t recommend the use of medicines or excessive alcohol. They confuse the body even more. They also impair the quality of sleep. When suffering from jet lag, it’s best to allow a slightly longer time for waking up.
So, if sometimes in Shanghai you encounter during the day a man in trainers with dark rings under his eyes, carrying a couple of bags of shopping, that may well be me. After a night flight and a short nap, I stay awake until late in the evening to ensure I get the best possible uninterrupted sleep all the way to morning, when we head back to Helsinki.