How Do Pilots Cope with Jet Lag?

How Do Pilots Cope with Jet Lag?

DALLAS – If I were completely honest with you and said that I don’t suffer from jet lag, this could be a very short article!

Despite the fact that I am very fortunate to be able to flip-flop from one timezone to another with ease, as a pilot, I have refined and developed some travel hacks over the years that help me better manage long-distance travel. This is both while flying as crew and as a passenger as well.

Not long after I began flying long-haul some ten years ago, I discovered that personal techniques for coping with long flights and timezone changes are as diverse as one’s taste buds. I would, of course, be lying with you if I said I don’t feel energetically challenged during long trips but I lightheartedly call such a feeling being ‘fuzzy around the edges’ rather than just being tired, since rest may not be the only nor the best remedy.

Our body clocks play an important role in how our bodies function, and large time zone changes can disrupt our sleep cycle. It could mean that your body is expecting you to sleep when you should be awake, and vice versa.

Despite this, I have never stayed in my home time zone while traveling because the disadvantages outweigh the benefits for me personally. Starting my day when it’s pitch black outside and grazing through the late-night hotel room service menu for breakfast is not my idea of fun!

Photo: Capt Chris Pohl, @captainchris for Airways

Less is more

Many people enjoy eating onboard when they travel, even if it is just to pass the time rather than to look forward to the meal itself. Those who are fortunate enough to be flying closer to the nose of the plane on a long-haul flight will obviously have a more diverse selection of cuisine to choose from.

It’s understandable to want to get the most out of your ticket purchase by eating more food than you really need, but this is where I would advise caution. I am sure you can recall feeling a little sluggish after a hearty meal and then wanting to doze off for forty winks, but ask yourself if eating more than you are used to and then sitting for hours is doing your body any good? While I am not medically qualified to answer by any means, I would guess that the answer is probably ‘No.’

As a result, when traveling long distances, my strategy is to eat as little as possible and only when I’m hungry. Not only are you confusing your digestive system by eating large meals when your body is not expecting them, but it is also very easy to overeat on a flight.

If you can arrange your meal times before or during your journey to align with the local time at your destination, that is a great start, but it can be difficult when meals are served at set times onboard.

Even economy passengers can avoid this problem by bringing their own food or at least some snacks instead of always opting for the food served onboard. Whilst in the air, I tend to avoid hot meals in favor of smaller bites such as wholesome snacks, salads, and, if it’s breakfast time, some fruit or a cereal-based product.

Photo: Manmohan Mohanty/Airways

While I’m wary of delving into dietary science, it’s worth noting that more colleagues are now incorporating intermittent fasting into their routine when flying, and from my own personal experience, it can yield massive benefits when dealing with time zone changes.

But, if this is a new concept for you, proceed with caution before embarking on a double-digit hour fast on your next long-haul flight. Although it is a technique that will not be suitable for everyone, focusing on simply eating just enough to keep the pangs of hunger at bay while traveling, can boost your well-being on a long flight.

When I am flying as a passenger, I tend to steer away from alcohol whilst traveling. Again, this is a very subjective topic, and for many people, not being able to enjoy a few glasses of their preferred tipple can detract from their travel experience. Even a small amount of alcohol can make you feel far worse than if you drank the same amount on the ground.

Furthermore, alcohol can degrade your sleep quality, and with airplanes not being the best places to sleep, you want to give your body the best chance to do so as soundly as possible while in the air. Save the glass of wine for when you arrive, and because your sense of taste changes when you fly, you’ll probably enjoy it more after you land too.

Changing your sleeping habits so that you sleep during the flight when it is nighttime at your destination, can also assist your body to adjust to the local time when you arrive. On the day of departure, waking up earlier if traveling east and later if traveling west, can also have a powerful effect on adjusting your body clock.

Photo: Barrington Irving via Twitter.

Don the Sunshades and Take a Cold Shower

Fresh air, and especially sunlight, can have a magical effect on the body, assisting in the synchronization of your body clock. If you’re traveling west and arrive at your hotel in the afternoon when your body expects to see darkness, the worst thing you can do is take a nap!

The body will easily transition into a deep night’s sleep, resulting in you waking up in the early morning hours at your new location. This is another case where some moderate exercise outside can really give you a new lease of life and help you power through until it’s time for bed in your new location.

Instead of waking up in a hotel and going straight to the big breakfast buffet, I always prefer a brisk walk in the morning, along with some caffeine and a light breakfast. This gives me a lot more energy for the rest of the day.

Furthermore, this is especially useful when traveling east because natural light and exercise can have a powerful effect on pushing your body to start the day earlier than it is expecting.

Running a cold shower or alternating between hot and cold can also have beneficial effects on one’s alertness, not to mention the plethora of medical benefits that it is said to generate. However, as a general rule, I only do this during the day because a cold shower before bed could have the unintended consequence of preventing you from sleeping when you intend to.

While this concept is not as popular among colleagues as intermittent fasting, it was interesting to note that the Co-Pilot on my last trip was also a fan of cold showers!

Photo: Alberto Cunini/Airways

Dress to Impress

Even what you wear can have an impact on your mood when you travel. Polyester and other synthetic materials are ideal because they are crease and spill-resistant. They are not only easy to pack and wash, but they will ensure that you arrive looking and feeling sharp.

While comfort is usually the most important factor when traveling long distances, not all materials, such as linen, travel well and can crumple and crease easily while sitting for long periods of time. Spilling gravy on your white linen shirt will remind you of your clumsiness until you change, but a similar spillage on a dark-colored golfing polo shirt can often be quickly and easily removed!

Traveling well is an art, and a unique one at that, because what works for one person may not be popular or as effective for another. Regardless, if you are planning a long-distance flight soon and want to have a spring in your step as you waltz through the terminal after you arrive, I hope that some of the above suggestions may help you to have a more enjoyable journey. Happy Flying!

Featured image courtesy: Miten Patel

Aviation author and commercial pilot based in the UK, with close to twenty years in the industry.

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