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What is a jet lag and how to mitigate it?

I travel a lot. Last year I needed to fly about 10 times. In the past, my worst flight took 29 hours. It was a business trip to New Zealand. I was totally exhausted. It took me a long time to adapt and then even more time to adjust back when I returned home. I was sleepy, I had an issue with concentration. I was heavily jet-lagged. Is there anything we can do be prepared for a long trip? Can we mitigate a jet lag? I personally think we should work on a means of transportation that will significantly short amount of time that we need to travel long distances. In the meantime, prepare your coffee and read some things that I try to follow to make the jet lag less miserable experience when I need to travel.

Remote work is excellent. It has a lot of benefits; it saves you time on the commute, it helps with life and work balance. And what’s been important recently, it limits your exposure during seasonal flu outbreaks. Technology, team agreement and procedures can help with day to day team operations, but nothing will replace face to face communication. Even fully remote teams and whole companies must meet every so often to ponder on the past, plan the future and just spend some time togarther. That means travel. And that usually means long flights, at least for some members of the team. Is there anything we can do be prepared for a long trip? How can we mitigate a jet lag?

What is actually a jet lag? πŸš€πŸ•°πŸŒ

Some people will still argue this fact, but the Earth is round, and it rotates around the Sun. One rotation takes approximately 24 hours. Approximately, because the exact number is larger and this is why we have a leap year. For the sake of simplicity, the early cartographers divided the globe initially into two half’s, the West and the East, and later into 24 zones, reflecting 24 hours of Earth rotation around the Sun. We have 180 degrees east and 180 degrees west. In total it’s 360. 360 decided by 24 gives us 15 degrees. When we travel and traverse 15 degrees, we move into a new time zone. It was not an issue in the past. People travelled mainly on boats. It took a while, and it allowed for adapting.

The cost of being fast πŸ’¨

How to mitigate the jet lag
πŸ‡³πŸ‡Ώ New Zealand, 2009, 29 hrs trip

It did change however in the 1960’s when the first commercial jet flight took place moving passengers from one continent to another, not in days or weeks, like it used to be – but in hours. Short travel and multiple time zones that are being skipped in fast pace make our body clock to deregulate and circadian rhythm to lose its synchronisation. Our body just lags behind too rapid movement and is not being able to keep and adapt to the new dust and dawn times.
When we study symptoms, they could be confused with some severe diseases: insomnia and excessive sleepiness, daytime fatigue and concentration deficiency, and also in extreme occasions – mood swings, constipation and even diarrhoea.

How to mitigate jet lag – before the trip πŸ§πŸ›«

The question is, can we somehow mitigate the jag lag? Or perhaps reduce some symptoms? The answer is as usual – it depends. We cannot really eliminate it totally. We can only try to prepare a little bit, follow particular protocol to mitigate some symptoms. But in the end, our body will need to do all the hard work to adapt and accommodate to the new situation.

Autopilot – create a standard operating procedure πŸ“‹πŸ¦ΎπŸ€–

Before we go to the nitty-gritty of mitigating the jet lat. I would like to point to one important topic related to the fatigue that jet lag will create. We should prepare usual stuff – packing, making sure we have all the needed documents, reservations etc. We should also create a standard operating procedure for the time between landing and crashing to the bed in hotel at our destination. The trip fatigue and a jet lag will cause severe degradation in our ability to think clearly, so that we need to put things on autopilot. We make it a habit by repeating the sequence of actions every time we travel:

  • check if you take all your belongings with you,
  • have a usual place for typical items – phone always go to this pocket, passports always go to that place,
  • the baggage and children count performed etc. πŸ™‚
  • have your itinerary ready to answer the question from border control officers, order taxi to hotel etc

Pre-trip adaptation – light exposure 🌝 πŸŒ™

Regarding jet lag itself – there is a minimal amount of things we can do before actual trip. I can think of only two items.
We can try to adapt to the new time zone regarding sleeping schedule and eating schedule. For some people it will not be much of the problem, some others will find it virtually impossibly due to commitments. I usually do nothing in this manner. I have a specific schedule at work and some commitments on family life. And I cannot afford to have meals separately and going to sleep before my kids, for instance.

πŸ’‘ However, if you can do it, it is worth shifting your schedule towards the target time zone. It will be easier later. A few practical tips:

  • if you need to shorten your day – try to use curtains that will cut the light almost entirely and go to bed earlier,
  • if you need to lengthen your day – try to use the light that imitates the sunlight and stay longer,
  • insulin level gets lower overnight
  • try to shift your meals to your new time zone schedule, eating affects your insulin level, and insulin level directly affects your body timekeeping.

How to mitigate a jet lag – things you can do during the trip ✈️

One of the school of travellers promote following scenario: aboard the plane, listen to safety procedure, ask for lots of booze and quickly fall to sleep. It may work for some people to help them to get to sleep. But the quality of this sleep, and later, quality of the time when they wake up is questionable. We should drink a lot, but it should not be alcohol.

 Drink right liquids β˜•οΈ ❌ 🍷❌

How to mitigate the jet lag
Switzerland πŸ‡¨πŸ‡­ 2019

Another popular scenario is to have one of those productive, quiet times. Drink a lot of caffeine, stay hyperactive and muscle through the all journey. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of quiet time. I love to have a good read, listen to stuff that I usually don’t have time. It becomes to be problematic when I try to force myself to stay focus. Natural instinct is to have an extra dose of caffeine intake.

The main issue is that alcohol and caffeine will dehydrate your body. Alcohol will deregulate your heart beats and also will affect your situational awareness. Coffee will work temporarily, and will make the overall process of jet lag recovery even longer and more painful later.

 Hydrate 🧊πŸ₯›

What we should drink instead is a lot of weather. The air conditioning in the aircraft makes the air very dry. We sit there for hours. This position and the length of a journey adds to tiredness and fatigue. Also if we already have had good coffees at the airport – the result is that we very quickly getting dehydrated. It may cause irritation, headache and magnify fatigue.

πŸ’‘ The general rule that I found on interwebs is this:

  • 1 litre of water for every 3 hours of flight
  • in other words: 230 ml (one glass) per flight hour
  • If I fly for 8 hours, I should drink not less than 2 litres of water.

πŸ’‘ There is a good tip on how to check your body hydration:

  • drying skin, and the best place to check is the tip of your elbow, if it is becoming dry, white and crumbly – you should ask for a bottle of water and drink.

Do you need to eat?

When we are on drinking topic, let’s touch on eating on board as well. The food quality in the majority of the airlines is poor. I don’t mean that it will cause the food poisoning, but it’s far from being healthy, it usually is served in time when it suites the flight schedule, not your trip schedule and so on. The best idea that I implement recently is to skip the meals alltogather. I usually have some energy bars, and I stick to drinking a lot of water and juices.


How to mitigate the jet lag – after the trip πŸ›¬ πŸƒβ€β™€οΈ

You made it. The long and exhausting flight is over. What can we do now to make sure that recovery from jet lag will be somehow easier?

Move

You were sitting for hours, your body, although exhausted, craves for some moves. You don’t need to run a marathon, but some running or jogging may actually help. I usually go very fast through the airport itself, straights after flight. It also helps to be the first to passport control, customs and in general shortens the time needed to go to bed.

Eat

I covered eating in the pre-trip preparation section. It is good to finish your long day with healthy easy digestible food. I usually skip the meals served during the flight, so by the time I reach the hotel, I am actually quite hungry. But even if you do not feel super hungry, it is good to eat a light dinner. The whole point is to help your body to reset your clock. It included an eating schedule. This will help to regulate the insulin level, which directly affects our timekeeping “machinery” in our body.

Recovery time

How long will it take to fully recover? I tried to do a bit of research on this topic. But as usual – the answer is – it depends.
My experience is that it will take one day per one hour of the time difference. If I travel to Vancouver, which is 8 hours ahead of London, I will need 8 days (!) to be fully recovered, and be fully operational. It is worth to keep in mind. It is fine you feel fatigued, you are not 100% efficient for more than a week. We live in machoism word, where everyone pretends to be super-human, trying to attend all meetings, be super productive next day after red eyes trip. It is a lie, similarly to a myth of time management. Let’s take it easy on our bodies and make sure we still enjoy travelling, even when we are still yawning after that last long trip.


Lessons learned during this coffee journey β˜•οΈ

  • The Earth is round πŸ˜ƒ when we fly long distance we traverse a few time zones, our internal clock does not keep up on new sunset and dawn schedule – it causes a jet lag.
  • We cannot really eliminate it, but we can mitigate a jet lag by trying to adapt to the new schedule.
  • During the trip we should avoid drinking coffee and alcohol – we should drink plenty of water.
  • The key to help our body to adapt to new time is to adjust to new eating schedule.
  • After a long time of sitting – we should move – this is true no only for flying πŸ™‚
  • It takes a long time to recover – allow for it, take it easy, life is not all about work.

Cover photo: Spain πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡Έ 2019

Do you have your own protocol to mitigate a jet lag?

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