For three years of my adult life, I worked as cabin crew (that’s a flight attendant if you’re in America). This meant travelling through almost every timezone available, ranging from San Diego through to Sydney. With that in mind, it isn’t unfair to assume that I can find ways to reduce jet lag without a problem.
When Googling ways to reduce jet lag, most of the articles were all-encompassing. By that, I mean they covered everything from preparing in advance of your outbound journey to pre-adjustment tricks before landing back at home. Said tips involved not drinking gin on either flight.
However, if you’re anything like me, you probably did very little to prepare in advance of your trip. Plus, you possibly drank a fair bit of gin and/or wine during both flights. And, as I was visiting Orlando, there was no way I was dedicating an entire day to making re-adjusting easier. Not when I could just go to Typhoon Lagoon instead.
I’m going to go ahead and make an assumption of my own: there are plenty of you out there who are in the same position as me. I.e., you want to know what you can do after landing from your long-haul flight. I’ll let you know how this all unfolds in a few days’ time when I eventually finish writing this post. For now, here’s my quick guide to reducing jet lag after you land back from your trip:
Throw yourself back into your old sleep cycle
While working as cabin crew, many of my friends would dread what I fondly refer to as landing day. Landing day, a regular occasion that cabin crew is familiar with, is the day you land back from your long-haul flight. Strictly speaking, you can’t have true jet lag on landing day, because you usually haven’t been away long enough to adjust to the other country’s waking hours. But, we would all feel physically exhausted anyway, which meant we found our own ways to adjust.
My way would include taking a nap that lasted for no longer than one hour, before forcing myself back into my usual sleep cycle. With a little caveat, which you will learn about in a moment. On your personal landing day, prop your eyes open and stay awake until your normal bedtime. Then, set your alarm, go to sleep, and enjoy the instant calm that comes with sinking into slumber.
By throwing yourself back into your old sleep cycle, you’re giving your body’s circadian rhythm a nudge. Your body’s circadian rhythm uses a complex bunch of hormones that have a routine of their own. When functioning correctly, they’ll help promote the sleep cycle you were used to before venturing on your trip. By forcing yourself straight into your body’s old circadian rhythm, you’ll push it toward your previous sleep cycle.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t going to work straight away. Nor will it work on its own. It takes roughly one day per time zone to fully work your way back into a normal sleep cycle. In my case, that means six days. Six WHOLE days of feeling as dopey as I do right now.
One of the most crucial ways to reduce jet lag after landing: add to your sleep bank
I first learned about my sleep bank when I was undertaking a human factors lecture from a pilot during my cabin crew training. Like your financial bank, your sleep bank will rapidly deplete and leave you in dire straits when you don’t add to it. As cabin crew, we could lose up to two nights of sleep per week. In the long term, poor sleep leads to poor mental health, weight gain, and a lower immune system.
Although I just mentioned throwing yourself back into your usual circadian rhythm, I’m also going to suggest that you refill your sleep bank the day after landing day. How much you need to refill depends on your circumstances.
For example, yesterday I was running on one night’s less sleep than usual. My daughter slept throughout the entire flight, whereas I didn’t catch a wink. So, after packing her off to school this morning, I refilled my sleep bank with a four-hour nap.
Usually, I’ll sleep between six and seven hours per night. I went to bed at 10pm and woke at 7, which meant I had nine hours of sleep under my belt. Adding the extra four to my bank was, therefore, a very necessary lie in.
To decide how long your sleep bank nap needs to last for, calculate how many hours sleep you usually get per night. Then, look at how many nights’ sleep you lost from your return journey. After that, look at how much sleep you achieved on your personal landing day. When the opportunity arises, take the mammoth nap that tops up your bank.
Stick to a normal eating schedule
During my first two years as cabin crew, I was often on the East Coast of the United States or in the Caribbean. My eating schedule went to pot, especially as I would eat at weird times during the night flights that took me home.
It has taken more than two years for me to want breakfast at a normal time again. Until recently, I would either avoid it entirely (unhealthy) or force it down my throat in the form of a protein bar (much better). By resisting, I wasn’t helping my circadian rhythm at all.
When you return to the usual eating habits that you adopt while at home, you stimulate some of the hormones that play a role in your circadian rhythm:
Cortisol and your circadian rhythm
Cortisol is the hormone that’s associated with stress. It’s produced in your adrenal glands and has a strong relationship with your eating patterns. Cortisol also mediates inflammation and when it reaches its peak in the first two hours after you wake up, you’re at your most productive.
When you allow your post-flight eating pattern to fall in line with the country you were just in, your cortisol levels will fluctuate at the wrong times. If said fluctuations result in higher stress levels, you will then struggle to sleep.
But what if you don’t feel hungry in the morning and you would rather eat a grilled cheese sandwich at night? I’ve always been a bit of a nighttime snacker, but I refuse to let my recent flight schedule mess with my morning routine when I know it will negatively impact my cortisol levels. So, I try eating a protein bar instead. Followed by an apple. The apple is mainly there because I ate no fruit whatsoever while in the U.S.
Progesterone and your circadian rhythm
Progesterone plays a role in your menstrual cycle (if you have one) and inflammatory processes. When it’s off-keel, you’re also less likely to experience the REM phase of sleep, whether you’re male or female.
When you enjoy REM sleep as a part of your usual cycle, you also retain more the next day. In other words, you need to regulate your progesterone levels if you’re hoping to get back to work quickly. (As a freelance copywriter, I was back to it the day after landing day. I am now on day two.)
Again, you can use your diet to your advantage here. Eat foods that are brimming with Omega-3s, such as salmon and chia seeds. Add Vitamin C to your diet and chow on anything that’s iron-rich.
Melatonin and your circadian rhythm
I bet you were wondering when this one was going to crop up? Melatonin is a hormone that your body produces rhythmically. It releases in response to darkness, from the pineal gland. So, when you spend a few days or more abroad and your brain receives the message that it’s getting dark at a certain time, it’ll continue releasing melatonin at similar times when you arrive home.
Melatonin release begins around two hours before your brain thinks it’s a good time to sleep. That’s why you might toss and turn if you force yourself into bed early, as your brain isn’t quite ready yet. While many medics are on the fence when it comes to Melatonin supplementation, there are some studies demonstrating that it’s effective when you take a small dose half-an-hour before bedtime. I’ll discuss this towards the end of the post.
Try using temporary non-addictive sleeping aids
Many people will be aghast at the idea of using a sleeping aid to combat jet lag. However, when you do so temporarily and steer away from those that are addictive, you can nudge yourself back into a normal sleeping cycle.
As my most recent visit was to the United States, I was able to get my hands on plenty of Diphenhydramine. It’s the ingredient in Nyquil that makes you sleepy, it’s non-addictive, and it’s an antihistamine that doesn’t appear to carry its effects through to the next day.
When used for a few days only, Diphenhydramine can gently reset your sleep cycle. Unlike Benzodiazepines such as Diazepam (Valium), it doesn’t pose an addiction risk. However, you need to avoid drinking while taking it and remain mindful of the fact that you might still feel dopey the next day. Like many medications, everyone responds to it differently.
Finally, we’ve arrived at the hormone supplement that leaves many divided. While your body is still in the habit of believing that darkness isn’t going to occur for a few hours (or that it should have happened hours ago) Melatonin can act as a helping hand while trying to induce sleep.
Getting your hands on it, though, is another matter. The NHS’s current stance is that Melatonin isn’t useful when it comes to treating jet lag. This may have more to do with the fact that studies examining its role in resolving jet lag are quite small, as opposed to there being any significant studies contradicting Melatonin’s use. So, your GP may remain unlikely to prescribe it, especially as the current (cost-driven) NICE guidelines suggest doing otherwise.
On a more positive note, you can order it online yourself. Even better still, do as I have done and bulk buy while you’re in the U.S. (if that’s where you’re travelling to, of course). After my father-in-law (well, I’m cohabiting, but you know) took me to Walmart, I purchased 60 tablets for $7.96. That’s less than $0.14 per tablet. As I have taken myself five time zones away from my comfort zone, the cost of potentially inching myself back into a better sleep cycle is just $0.66.
As for those smaller studies in Melatonin’s efficacy when resolving jet lag, they did show quicker adjustment periods, especially for those travelling fewer than eight time zones away from home.
I am now on Day 3 of using ways to reduce jet lag after landing and feeling significantly better. My workload was far less traumatic this afternoon, with an impressive four-hour completion time on all of my tasks.
Happy Saturday! x