Brain fog. Body fatigue. Soul drain.
Ugh. Jet lag sucks — or does it?
I rarely give myself credit for being an expert at handling jet lag, but I am. For five decades (yes, admittedly), I have been dealing with the after effects of long distance travel. And unlike a pilot who never really adjusts to the time zone, I have taken on the challenge of jet lag hundreds of times.
In my teens, I went from Germany to the United States totally oblivious to the rhythm of traveling across time zones. Commuting for college between Munich and Los Angeles in my early 20s taught me to respect the distance, but youth allowed me to roll with the punches (at least in my memory).
In my late 20s and early 30s, traveling to sometimes three countries a week while based in London was exciting and exhilarating. Jet lag, who cares? London to San Francisco for a weekend? Sure, no problem.
Then came travel and jet lag with young children. There is enough material in that to fill another article or two. Suffice it to say, I can still see the remnants of freshly watered plant soil smeared all over the house while Mommy and Daddy were in exhausted deep sleep shortly after the long-haul flight from SFO.
So yes, in my 40s and now 50s, I have learned a thing or two about jet lag. I have had the privilege of traveling around the world, once east, once west, in addition to hundreds of trips across the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and close to the North Pole. Given all that, here are my golden rules for preventing, managing and surviving jet lag:
Jet Lag – The Healthy Way
1) Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail
Plan for your arrival when you book your flight, regardless of whether you book yourself or you delegate this task. Know when you will have your natural low in the local time. For example, I know that I will be very sleepy early in the morning when going to Europe, but that will occur in the afternoon when I return to California. I avoid meetings or extensive driving during the REM sleep phase for safety reasons. As an executive you don’t want to argue your case before the Board of Directors during the REM sleep phase. Nor do you want a surgeon to operate on you when he just returned from a conference halfway around the world.
2) Fit as a Fiddle
Especially busy executives tend to fall short on this. If your body is not in good health and you are not in shape, your immune system is not at its best. The fitter you are, the quicker you bounce back after landing. Exercise before, during, and after flight makes time travel a lot more pleasant. We typically know how to exercise before and after, but what about during? Here are a few tips: Take the stairs rather than the elevator or the escalator. Walk around the airport rather than sit in the lounge. Stand instead of sit. Walk the aisle of the airplane when possible. Do stretching exercises, even while sitting in your seat. Ask a personal trainer at your gym for suggestions. Some people do yoga; it’s rumored that Sting does that on all flights. You can almost do a full workout while on a plane, except for cardio exercises. Use the hours upon arrival that you feel good to exercise and help your body adjust.
3) Cool as a Cucumber
Lots has been published about our diets and how we need to focus more on eating vegetables and protein and less processed foods. Unfortunately, that is not easy in airports and airplanes even though it has gotten better in some. My # 1 rule: Eat lightly. No Duck a l’Orange before stepping on an airplane. On the contrary, eat a salad before so you won’t feel bloated in increasingly tight seats. It will help you transition with your digestion as well. Think twice about the salted snacks and the mashed potatoes or the dessert that will make you crave more salt or sugar. I often take sliced bell peppers on board.
When you arrive, make sure you have access to light snacks for when you wake up hungry in the middle of the night. Eating lots of vegetables and salads also helps with traveler’s constipation, a not-so-pleasant side effect of traveling across time zones. Also, depending on the local cuisine, watch what you are eating. More or less fiber than in your usual diet can have a big impact. The same goes for unusually spicy or bland food. I personally have to watch my bread and cold cut intake when going to Bavaria. Leberkaes’ und Brez’n are my all-time favorites and because I can’t get them in California I tend to overindulge — at a price! The same might be the case for pasta in Italy, pommes frites in France, or shepherd’s pie in the United Kingdom.
4) Liquid Lunch – Think Not
Avoid alcohol, especially at 30,000 feet! The alcohol affects your body much more at high elevations. Being confined to your seat for long stretches of time and being bored is no excuse. I used to love a split on my British Airways flights from London to Frankfurt. But drinking alcohol on transatlantic flights can prove to be quite challenging. Getting up after a long flight and then dragging yourself through customs is no easy task. American Airlines used to greet flights from Scandinavia with an extra allotment of wheel chairs to handle all the drunk passengers. Are you sure you want to be one of them? Also, alcohol tends to mess with your sleep rhythm, so best stay clear.
Caffeine is tricky too. I just spoke with an executive who flew to Barcelona and kept himself going with lots of coffee. He had a terrible time with jet lag. A cup of coffee or tea to get you over the hump is fine, but all in moderation. Otherwise, you’ll be so wired at 3 a.m. you’ll wonder why you didn’t resist for hours.
Water is your best friend. Airplane rides tend to dehydrate us (and alcohol tends to add to that problem). I know you can’t take water through security, but do yourself a favor and buy a bottle of water before you get on a plane. Even better, bring an empty bottle and refill it in the airport and on the plane. That way you can have water when you need it, not when the flight attendants provide it. After arrival continue to keep water with you at all times and drink frequently. Waking up in a bed at midnight, disoriented, thirsty and groggy is bad enough, but having to go on a hunt in unfamiliar territory is hard. Plenty of water also helps flush out toxins in your body. I know people who don’t want to drink a lot of water for fear of having to get up and use the facilities, but don’t buy into that story. I suspect you won’t have to get up more often than otherwise, because you are just countering dehydration at 30,000 feet.
5) The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
Even, if you are not a fan of taking vitamins regularly, do take them when traveling across time zones. I personally take Airborne (no, they didn’t sponsor this article, although I wish) before, during and after every long haul flight to boost my immune system. It helps me fight off all the germs that are in airports and airplanes just waiting to attack me.
6) The Emperor’s New Clothes
Think carefully what to wear on a flight. Start with the shoes. You want well broken-in, comfortable shoes that won’t leave you with blisters on the long way to the gate, that you can easily slip on and off during security checks, and that will fit again after a long flight with swollen feet (exponentially brutal while pregnant, I might add). I personally always travel with slippers that I put on right after take-off. You might wonder what slippers have to do with jet lag. My philosophy is the more I can relax and enjoy the flight, the easier time I will have with jet lag.
Moving on to clothes. You want to dress comfortably and in layers. You never know if you will be sweating or chilled on the airplane and usually you don’t have any control over the temperature. Just recently I found myself stuck in a window seat freezing for almost eight hours.
Luckily, I didn’t get sick this time, but I would like to think only because I was prepared. Always carry a scarf — men, you too.
Clothes also matter for jet lag. You want to be comfortable for the first few days in a new location. Super tight clothes or scratchy new outfits might not feel so good, when all your body wants is to curl up.
7) Ahead of Time
Change your clock as soon as you get on the airplane and structure your food intake and sleep cycle according to the new location. Try not to calculate what time it is in your body. Otherwise your mind will use it as an excuse and make you feel even worse.
8) Sleep Tight
When it’s dark out, sleep. That’s it. When it’s dark outside, close your eyes, use eye shades and ear plugs as necessary and meditate. It will lead you to much needed sleep. Even if not, it will leave you more rested. Upon arrival, try not to give into the temptation of taking a nap. An espresso can help you over the hump. Ideally, you want to sleep at night and be active during the day.
What if you can’t fall asleep or wake up early totally wired? Rather than fighting it, use this time to your advantage. It might be your most productive time for the first few days (hence, I am writing this article now). Avoid the temptation to be physically active or to use screens during the dark hours to keep you from being bored. A TV or computer will give you the illusion that you are supposed to be awake when you are not. Instead, read, meditate, or write on a note pad. Dump your thoughts and then turn the light off again. Even if you get up, keep the lights dimmed and engage in mellow activities.
9)Worth Its Salt
Because your body needs to adjust to a totally new rhythm, you will be productive and creative at different times than you normally would. Use it to your advantage. For example, I am writing this article at 2 a.m. and I know that I will be unproductive and mellow at 2 p.m. today. Work with this shift. Because your body is out of synch and at odd times, it can offer you a completely new perspective on life where you came from and life where you are going. I call this the gift of jet lag. As much as I dread the strange feelings of fatigue, I marvel at my output when I am in lockstep with people on the other side of the earth.
What are your best tricks for overcoming jet lag? Feel free to share
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