Flight survival: overcome jet lag

Willis Towers Watson's Operations Director, nurse and healthcare travel specialist, Rachael Floyd, advises on how to synchronise your body clock and cope with jet lag.

What is it?

Jet lag, a common problem for long distance travellers, can result in disturb sleep patterns, leaving sufferers feeling lethargic and affecting their physical and mental performance.

It occurs when the body’s biological clock (circadian rhythm), which operates on a 24 hour cycle, is unable to synchronise quickly to rapid travel across time zones, such as those experienced on a long-haul flight. Estimates suggest that it can take as much as one day per time zone travelled to readjust.

As well as fatigue, sleeplessness and loss of concentration, jet lag can also result in gastro-intestinal disturbances – all a considerable inconvenience to airline passengers and a major problem for business travellers who needs to work shortly after arrival.

Why might I get it?

Both regular flyers and infrequent travellers can be affected by jet lag. You are more susceptible however if you are:

  • crossing more than three time zones
  • travelling east – it is not as severe when travelling west
  • aged over 50

The good news, however, is that there are things you can do which, research has shown, can alleviate its effects.

Travel health top tips

I’ve tried a number of different methods of overcoming jet lag – all in the interests of medical science – but found that, as with many things, simple and practical steps are the most effective: 

  • During your flight, set your watch to the time in your destination country. This will get you used to local time faster. Make a point not to think about what time it is at home – unless you need to make contact with the office. 
  • Do your best to stay awake when you arrive at your destination country, until it is bedtime at local time that is. Avoid napping during the day – this will only extend the time it takes you to adjust to a normal sleep pattern. 
  • Try to get out and about at your destination in normal daylight. Your body clock responds to light and dark – exposure to natural light will help your body to readjust to day/night; wake/sleep. Gentle exercise, such as walking, will also help to relax you. 
  • Your body normally doesn’t expect to be fed during the night so eat regular meals, at the appropriate time. Raising your blood sugar in the small hours will give you energy just when you really don’t need it. 
  • It’s a common misconception that alcohol will always aid sleep. Although it may initially make you drowsy, it can affect the quality and depth of sleep. It can also lead to disturbed sleep by acting as a diuretic, meaning you need the toilet more frequently. 
  • If possible try to book flights with departure and arrival times that allow you to catch up on sleep during the flight, such as evening departures and morning arrivals.