3 Tips to Beat Jet-lag (that actually work!)
Updated: Sep 15
✨ LUCY EATON
I recently had a whirl-wind trip to New York for in-person interviews with upcoming American press that doubled as a romantic getaway with the boyfriend, who has never been before. So I had my Revels media hat on as well as my tour guide umbrella in the air... It was a joyful but totally exhausting 72 hours from start to finish and it got me thinking about my absolute least favourite thing about travelling: jet lag. When I was a child I actually had a phobia of jet lag (#FirstWorldProblems right?!) and it had the ability to totally ruin the end of any holiday west of the UK; I would be irrationally anxious in the final few days of any trip, dreading the return home where I knew I would struggle to sleep and invariably end up racked with sobs in the middle of the night. Let me tell you one thing: crying does not a good night's sleep make...
I've done a lot of trans-Atlantic flying now and I've come to learn how best to manage said anxiety and also how best to defeat said pesky jet-lag. With particular reference to travel between the US and Europe, here are my top 3 tips for managing your new sleep-cycles.
The tip you really didn't want me to put in, but here it is at number 1!
Exercise is pivotal for shaking off the exhaustion, blasting away those long-haul flight cobwebs and getting you on the right path. Whenever I've just arrived in the US or just returned home, I always endeavour to do a work-out within a few hours. Believe me, I never want to! I get off the flight discombobulated, exhausted and dehydrated (yes, I know a glass or 2 of wine on the flight is not conducive to beating jet-lag but it's fun, so there). The notion of pulling on work-out gear and actually using my body seems impossible, but once I begin I always feel better. And afterwards, I'm a new woman. It's obviously an easier task to talk yourself into when you've just checked into a gorgeous beach-front hotel like Palms in Miami, or an alpine idyll like Squaw Valley Lodge in California (see above)...
Exercise is an important aid in both directions for me. If I'm flying west, I need that work out to pep me up and help me survive the evening without passing out! If I've flown the red-eye home east, I need that work out to recharge me and push me through the day. Either way, a bit of light exercise (I would go for a jog or take myself to the hotel gym for half an hour) followed by a lovely long shower will get you off on the right foot immediately.
2. Naps AKA Lying in a dark room!
The opposite of point 1 is point 2: take the time to recharge. This is a tactic you need to be careful with, as a short power nap could turn disastrous if you let yourself sleep through the alarm and snooze for a couple of hours. But if used in moderation, a good nap will help you survive. In fact, even if proper sleep feels impossible, sometimes just taking the time to lie down quietly in a nice dark room for half an hour is really good at giving you the burst of energy you're craving. As Dr Guy Meadows (specialist in chronic insomnia and clinical director of The Sleep School in London) advises, "That’s a huge part of what I teach people: to lie in bed, rest and be still. " Another Guy, Dr Guy Leschziner (consultant neurologist at the sleep disorder centre, Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals) suggests that "lying awake in bed rests your body, but it doesn’t rest your brain", but maybe a body rest is all we need. In The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough, Matthew Edlund argues that rest can cure just as many evils as sleep!
So it's not whether to nap but when to nap: that is the question.
Flying West: When your body clock wakes you up at 4:30am (damn you!), don't leap out of bed immediately or grab your phone to start scrolling. Just keep yourself tucked up in the warmth a little longer. Then at around 4pm (mid-afternoon) I'd usually allow myself a cheeky doze. It pushes me through the long hard evenings, when social obligations are calling but your body's shutting down (try going for birthday dinner at Soho House NYC when your body's telling you it's 3am, or surviving the American Idol Finale on an 8-hour time difference). Apparently a Swiss study found that people fell asleep faster and had deeper sleep when they napped in a hammock than in a bed, so if you've flown somewhere exotic, find that swinging net and catch some Zzz's.
Flying East: I tend to only nap when flying in this direction if I've flown the red-eye and just landed. There's no way I'm getting through the whole day on 3-4 hours of shoddy, erratic airplane sleep, so I need a quick power nap as soon as I've got home and before I take on the day. A nap later in the day just screws with my sleep cycle.
What is it and why is it different to other sleep medication?
The National Sleep Foundation defines Melatonin as a natural hormone made by your body's pineal gland. During the day the pineal is inactive, but when the sun goes down the pineal is "turned on" and begins releasing melatonin into the bloodstream. As melatonin levels in the blood rise, you begin to feel less alert and sleep becomes more inviting. And why is this? According to Slate Star Codex, "it has a weak “hypnotic” effect" as well as affecting our circadian rhythm, shifting what time of day our bodies considers to be right for sleep." So the belief is thus: taking supplements of this natural hormone will trick your body into thinking it's bedtime.
This worked for me as a kid, and still does. Possibly as a placebo, but nonetheless it's helpful. Taking it mentally tells me I'm preparing for bed, and because I believe it helps, I stay calm. That being said, my dear friend and Revels in Hand actor Henry Gilbert has never had anxiety surrounding sleep and he swears by melatonin as well. The main pros are that there are no proven side-effects and it's not addictive, so you can take it for a few days when you've changed time zone and then when you stop, you shouldn't be any worse off. Despite this belief, Slate Star Codex makes a good point about the sense of restricting your intake anyway. They suggest that anything beyond 1mg at a time is unnecessary and may just lead to tolerance or mess up your biology in some ways that are not yet proven. So, everything in moderation.
A little melatonin, a hot cup of milk and a few pages of your book... Bring on the slumber.
For more tips on jet-lag control, take a look at Pilita Clark's hilarious article written for the Financial Times:
"It is astonishing how often people are still advised to prepare for a big flight as if they were Olympic athletes or jobless. The UK’s National Health Service is a typical offender. Its jet lag page blithely suggests flyers “start going to bed and getting up an hour or two earlier or later than usual, in line with the time of your destination”. This assumes phenomenal levels of willpower and more importantly, a boss who lets you skip work to stay in bed"
And here's a fabulously interesting extra fact from our friends at Skyscanner (don't say I never give you anything):
Pick your plane! A350s and A380s are the best planes for beating jet lag. Hi-tech humidification systems prevent classic airplane-dry air and LED lighting systems create over 16 million shades of colour that are meant to simulate the natural phases of the day, easing you into your new time zone. There's also an air purification system, renewing the air every two minutes. So less of the classic airplane flu in the days afterwards, because you breathed your fellow passengers' recycled air for 10 hours!
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