How I Used Science to Actually Beat Jet Lag (Plus 9 Science-Backed Tips You Should Try, Too)

How I Used Science to Actually Beat Jet Lag (Plus 9 Science-Backed Tips You Should Try, Too)

A scientist told me the best jet lag cures and tips... and I put them right to the test on a 15-hour flight.

By Eric Rosen
Digital Original
8 Tips for Surviving Long-Haul Flights

When it comes to jet lag, everyone has a different cure they think works best. Some experts suggest getting the right sleep at the right time is all you need. Still others advise fasting, while grounding has become all the rage in homeopathic circles. Rihanna uses drip therapy to fight fatigue. Chrissy Teigen swears by breakfast sandwiches and episodes of Below Deck. For Bella Hadid, looking good is feeling good. Even the type of plane you fly can have an impact on how well you feel when you land.

I decided to take matters into my own hands on a recent trip to Australia, though, and figure out exactly how I could beat jet lag for myself. To do so, I enlisted the help of the scientists at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. The Centre is a multi-disciplinary institute dedicated to studying chronic diseases and metabolism, and includes over 900 researchers in various fields from biology, nutrition, and mathematics, to engineering, public policy, and architecture, as well as several other specialties.

The Australian airline Qantas has actually forged a first-of-its-kind partnership with the Charles Perkins Centre. The goal is to help passengers overcome the rigors of the long-haul flights that Qantas operates overseas. Those include the airline’s new route from Perth to London. At over 17 hours, that flight is one of the world’s lengthiest, and is the first regularly scheduled commercial service connecting Australia to Europe non-stop.

Qantas was waiting to take delivery of its order of Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft in order to make that particular journey possible, though the airline is already flying the plane from Melbourne to Los Angeles, and will begin flying it from Melbourne to San Francisco later in 2018 as well.

Qantas hopes to launch even longer flights, such as from Sydney to London and Melbourne to New York, by 2022, which will make the work it’s doing with the Charles Perkins Centre that much more important.

The research is already well underway, though. According to Professor Stephen Simpson, the Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre, “Our research projects with Qantas on strategies to counteract jet lag include onboard exercise and movement, menu creation and design, service timing, pre- and post-flight preparation, transit lounge wellness and the airplane cabin environment, including lighting and temperature.” In short, Qantas has asked the Centre’s scientists for input tailoring almost every aspect of the travel experience.

The Scientists Weigh In on Jet Lag

After my own 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, this bleary-eyed writer hopped in a taxi and headed over to the University of Sydney to talk to Professor Simpson… and to hear about everything that I’d been doing wrong.

Energetic, cheerful and sporting a perpetual tan, Professor Simpson is exactly the kind of person you feel comfortable getting travel tips from. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his background is in evolutionary biology and that his resumé includes stints at Oxford and the University of London.

“The most profound impact of travel is in relation to your body clock, your circadian control system,” said Professor Simpson. “That’s the foundation of jet lag. You’re being shifted from one time zone to another much more quickly than your body clock can keep up with.”

He said that the human body is capable of shifting its rhythms by about 60 to 90 minutes per day. So when you fly over multiple time zones, your body is going to take a while to catch up. The best thing you can do, he said, is to prepare before you travel by moving your waking times, meal times, and sleep towards your destination time zone little by little starting a few days in advance of your trip.

In those terms, I was already behind. I had been going to bed early back at home, and had barely managed to stay awake very long into my night flight to Sydney, so I had been up for hours already when I arrived in Sydney first thing in the morning. I was going to have a rough day ahead.

More than that, though, “A series of other things happen to you when you’re at altitude,” Simpson continued. “The low humidity and pressurization, extended periods of sitting and disrupted sleep patterns all affect your metabolic health.” 

This is where Qantas hopes the benefits of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner come in. The aircraft represents Boeing’s big leap forward to next-generation jets. It is constructed mainly from plastic composites instead of the metal used in conventional aircraft. Because of that, it can be pressurized to a lower altitude and retain higher humidity levels in the cabin, all of which alleviate symptoms of long-haul air travel, such as fatigue, aching sinuses and light-headedness.

The plane also has bigger windows than other aircraft to let in more natural light. It has better cabin temperature control, and finely tuned, programmable cabin lighting. That’s important, said Simpson, “Because we can use lighting to help with circadian control and shifting passengers’ body clocks more effectively.”

Best Jet Lag Cures: Science-Backed Tips and Tricks

Here are the other tips he gave me for my flight back to the U.S., which would actually be from Melbourne to Los Angeles aboard Qantas’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

1. Get a head start.

“One really useful thing to do,” Simpson said, “is to put yourself in the mental space of your destination time zone and start thinking in those terms.” The more time zones you’re crossing, the earlier you should start, he said. You can only hope to shift your body clock by about an hour each day, though, so make changes incrementally by eating and sleeping a bit earlier or later each day, depending on whether your destination is ahead of or behind you in time.

2. Set your watch to your destination time.

“When you get on the flight,” he said, “set your watch to the destination time zone so you’re already thinking in those terms.”

3. Eat at the right times.

“Your gut has its own clock,” said Professor Simpson. “Your capacity to digest and metabolize food and nutrients is part of your circadian rhythm.” So don’t eat a huge meal in the middle of the night in your destination time zone or you’ll mess up your body clock. Instead, try eating closer to the right times in your destination, even if it means skipping a meal on the flight in order to time meals better for when you land.

4. Eat the right things.

It’s not just when you eat, but what you eat. Certain foods, like spicy condiments, can keep you awake, while others can encourage sleep. “Eat a meal with high levels of tryptophan, like from poultry, or vegetables coupled with complex carbohydrates,” advised Simpson. The combination will promote your natural production of melatonin and serotonin, which will help you sleep naturally.

5. Practice hydration over inebriation.

“You should relax and enjoy yourself — part of long-haul flying is going somewhere interesting and different,” said Simpson. But he also warned, “The liver’s capacity to deal with alcohol is on a circadian clock, too.” So don’t drink too much, or at times when you would not normally have a drink, because that can disrupt your sleeping patterns. Simpson suggested staying away from caffeine as well. Water is your safest bet, but don’t overdo it because you don’t want to be running to the lavatory every hour.

6. Stay cool.

Simpson said you want to stay cool on the plane. Not fashion-wise... temperature-wise. Evolutionarily speaking, he said the body prepares to sleep when the temperature drops. Makes sense, since it’s generally cooler at night. Simpson pegged the ideal temperature range between about 65 to 70 degrees. Passengers don’t really have control over the cabin environment, but you can take steps to stay comfortable by wearing loose, breathable clothes in case it’s warm, and adding a few layers if the cabin is too cold for you.

7. Adjust your sleep schedule before the trip.

Though it can be hard to get 40 winks midair, do what you can to sleep at times that are appropriate for your destination. That means going to bed sooner if you’re flying east, or trying to stay up longer if you’re flying west.

8. Cut the screen time.

It only takes brief exposure to bright light wavelengths to throw off your body clock, Simpson told me. Hence all those warnings about limiting screen time with your personal devices before bed. The same holds true on the airplane. Turn off your tablet or the in-flight entertainment screen well in advance of trying to sleep in order to achieve slumber faster. Try meditating instead.

9. Let the sun shine in.

One of the most important factors in setting your body clock is exposure to natural light. “If you arrive in the morning,” said Simpson, “get out into the sunlight and get physical activity. Avoid sleeping until the nighttime or you might slip into a deep sleep and end up feeling dreadful.” On the other hand, if you land in the evening, limit your exposure to bright light so your body is primed to sleep sooner.

The Flight Back: I Put the Science-Backed Jet Lag Tips to Work

So how did I do on my flight back? Better!

I had a few factors in my favor, though. First, I was aboard the inaugural flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles on the Qantas 787 Dreamliner. I was able to reap the benefits of all those jet-lag-fighting benefits like the higher humidity and cabin pressurization. I felt less rundown and dried out than I normally do after a long flight like that.

I was also flying business class on Qantas’s newest seats, which meant plenty of privacy and a lie-flat bed for when I wanted to snooze.

I took Professor Simpson’s advice and tried to prepare in advance for the time change. The flight left mid-afternoon in Melbourne, which was almost dinnertime in L.A. The morning of my flight, I had a light breakfast then skipped lunch so that I would be hungry for meal service at the right dinner time for L.A. aboard the flight, which the crew began serving shortly after takeoff. I also set my watch to California time once I boarded so I would have a reference point to when I should be eating, sleeping or trying to stay awake at various points throughout the flight.

For dinner on board, I had a light tomato soup and then steak and potatoes with green beans for dinner, hoping the combination of protein, vegetables and a simple starch — along with a glass of Flametree Cabernet-Merlot from the Margaret River in Western Australia — would send me off to snooze land about an hour later. It did. I was satisfied but not stuffed, and ready for bed.

In the meantime, I changed into swanky Grant Martin pajamas the airline provided rather than staying in my own street clothes. I asked for an extra-large set, so they would be loose and comfortable. Luckily, the crew kept the cabin nice and cool, and I bundled up with my pillow and light duvet.

I got a solid seven hours of sleep and then woke up just as the second meal service was commencing. That put us at about 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles time (3:00 a.m. Melbourne time), which was perfect. I opted for scrambled eggs and fresh fruit to keep things light, but also treated myself to a cup of coffee for a caffeine boost.

We landed at 9:45 a.m.. I went home to unpack and found myself dragging, so I decided to go out for a hike in Runyon Canyon to get some sunshine and fresh air, and I think that was the best thing I could have done. I felt refreshed and invigorated. I ate lunch after and then did more errands. I even had dinner with friends, (barely) managed to stay up until 11:00 p.m., and then went home to get a full night’s sleep.

Though it did end up taking me a few days to get solidly back onto L.A. time, I did not have any episodes of waking up in the middle of the night or falling asleep in the middle of the day, like I would normally experience with jet lag. So I’m going to continue testing this routine with upcoming travels and see just how effective I can be at fighting jet lag on the flights to come.

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