One of the most common questions asked to aviation professionals is ‘How do you cure jet lag?’ If you’ve ever had the misfortune of suffering from jet lag, you’ll understand how challenging it is, so how do the professionals who work flying the skies cope with continuous long distance travel?
Despite it being their job, pilots and cabin crew aren’t immune to the effects of jet lag. Call it an occupational hazard but aviation professionals just have to manage it as best they can. In fact, most pilots are provided with education on managing their jetlag through their airlines risk management programs. Flight regulations are in place to prevent pilots from becoming overly tired and affecting performance when flying through multiple time zones.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled our top 9 secret tips and tricks of the trade from real aviation professionals from around the world.
Before we get started, what is jet lag?
The human body operates on a circadian rhythm where light determines whether it’s time to be awake or asleep. When the eye cells detect low light, it sends a message to a tiny organ in the brain called the pineal gland, which thus releases the sleep inducing hormone, melatonin. By crossing numerous time zones, it creates an imbalance in your rhythm which the body typically takes one day per time zone passed through to adjust.
When your internal body clock is thrown out of sync and the jet lag kicks in, it typically leaves you in a zombie like state, manifesting through poor concentration, irritable behaviour and disrupted sleep patterns.
So how do the professionals conquer it?
1. Stay hydrated
It sounds like a cliche but drink as much water as you can before and during the flight. Cabin air is particularly dry and the body can become dehydrated fairly quickly. This results in reduced kidney functions and less blood flowing to your muscles, all of which trigger the effects of jet lag.
System Chief Pilot at Southwest Airlines, R.J Deutschendorf says, ‘Being hydrated is one of the best things you can do for anyone who travels.’
Looking for an additional boost? Captain Suzanne Skeeters, a long haul commercial pilot recommends mixing your water with powdered electrolytes containing essential minerals to keep your body at optimal balance.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine
Reaching for post flight stimulants might seem like a good idea but alcohol can severely disrupt your sleeping patterns. After drinking alcohol, the sleep inducing chemical adenosine increases which speeds up the body falling asleep. However, the chemical subsides fairly quickly which can result in you waking up in the middle of the night.
It’s also advisory to limit your caffeine intake. Deutschendorf says, ‘When you’re a pilot and you do get fatigued, that half a cup of coffee will affect you more. It will keep you more alert, as opposed to somebody who drinks coffee all day long and becomes immune to it’ so ‘save the caffeine boost for when you really need it.’
- Eat healthy
The benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle is well documented and experts believe that maintaining a good diet can help with the effects of jet lag. A good mixture of protein, fruit, vegetables and (some) carbs will help stabilise your blood sugar levels. A diet consisting of high sugar levels will give you a momentary high followed by a crash afterwards.
Kara Mulder, a private flight attendant, advises others to prepare their healthy snacks in advance and eat them little and often. By preparing them in advance, it also helps you to choose healthy options during busy periods.
Essentially, airline professionals need to listen to their body. If you’re tired, do take a nap but limit the time you spend asleep. When you wake, moderate exercise will help to boost your energy levels and mood while adjusting back to your body’s natural rhythm.
Even a brisk walk or some press ups in your hotel room can help keep jet lag at bay. Qantas pilot, Shane Thompson, says ‘Exercise is the single best way to acclimatise in my experience.’
Furthermore, Kuwait Airways advises their staff to keep active during the flight by twisting, stretching and walking up and down the aisles.
- Get some sleep
Ensuring you have the right hotel arrangements can be crucial to finally getting that good night’s sleep. Ensure your hotel of choice is in a quiet location and that it’s cool and dark. A fully dark room ensures that you’re maximising your restorative R.E.M sleep.
Mimicking your usual nightly home routine will also help you drift off to sleep easier. Ear plugs, eye mask, whatever your thing is, make sure you’re consistent.
Also, either go to sleep at the local time for your destination or in accordance to your usual routine at home. Flitting between the two and sleeping when you want will only prolong your adjustment period. Civil Air Patrol cadet, Jim Gordon suggests that you should try and stick to your usual routine, even when you’re in a different time zone – however, that is probably easier said than done.
- Melatonin capsules
As pilots aren’t allowed to take sleeping tablets, some professionals opt for prescription melatonin capsules. The capsules imitate the sleep inducing hormone melatonin which helps to reset the sleep cycle. Captain, Kathy McCullough, said ‘It kind of just quiets the thoughts in your head long enough so that you can go to sleep, but it’s not a sleeping pill, so it won’t knock you out.’
- Pack your vitamins
Patrick Biedenkapp, a pilot from Berlin, advises others to pack turmeric water, spirulina and vitamin D tablets in winter to compensate for the lack of sun. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, all essential nutrients to keeping bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Don’t fancy the tablets? Tuna, red meat, liver and egg yolks are also rich in vitamin D.
- West is best…
So they say anyway. While aviation professionals can’t avoid travelling west, the experts advise that if you are, stay up late on the days leading up to your trip and get as much sunlight exposure as you can during the flight.
- & East is a beast
If you’re heading east, reverse the cycle – get up as early as you can on the days leading up to your trip and avoid sunlight on the day of your trip to advance your internal clock (so don’t forget your sunglasses!) When you arrive, adjust to your new time zone by sleeping with the curtains open for the first few nights.
‘East is a beast’ was coined by airline professionals and passengers who claim that traveling east is much more challenging. Captain, Lisa Mrozek, says ‘If you’re flying against the sun, it’s a lot harder on your body. If you’re going west, it just seems easier, that’s the general gist.”