Trains, Planes, Automobiles, and Jet-lag

jet-lagI just got back from a quick trip to Manchester (UK) for MANCEPT, where I co-convened an amazing workshop on new approaches and questions in collective action theory (maybe you had to be there!). It was a fantastic experience because I got to spend two and a half days with thirteen other people discussing one another’s work at a level possible only when everyone has expertise in exactly the same area. It’s a rare and wonderful thing.

But leaving for the UK from Toronto at 11 p.m. on Tuesday night and arriving near noon on Wednesday morning with about four hours of terrible sleep and perhaps the worst airplane meal I’ve ever had behind me, with many hours of reading, socializing, and eating ahead of me meant that I just never quite hit my stride.

Almost the whole time I was in Manchester I felt sleep-deprived (because I was) and bloated (because I was). Though I felt intellectually stimulated and socially engaged the entire time, I also felt inactive and sluggish. Our days were packed, with sessions all morning and all afternoon, scheduled breaks, snacks and lunch provided.

I like my own routines and I have a fairly consistent range of foods I eat at home that make me feel good (in that I digest them easily, they energize me, and I find eating them enjoyable). Of course one of the joys of traveling is trying new things, but the conference catering at MANCEPT, though there was plenty of vegan food on hand, was still conference catering. And all four dinners I had while I was there — one banquet dinner, one Indian restaurant, one African restaurant, and one Italian restaurant — disagreed with me.

According to this Washington Post article, jet-lag is worse when you travel west to east:

Studies suggest that you can push your body clock back about two hours per day, meaning that you can adjust from Washington time to Colorado time in a single day, but you can move your body clock forward (as when you travel from California to Washington) only by about an hour to an hour and a half per day, Jain says.

So for Washingtonians flying to see friends or family in California, where it’s three hours earlier, your body clock should be able to adjust in less than two days. But if you’ve got a vacation planned in Paris, where it’s six hours later than here, you’ll likely need three to five days to get in sync.

I was only in Manchester for four nights before it was time to turn around and come home. At no point during my time there did I feel like my normal self, well-rested and energetic.

The article goes on to say that night flights, especially red-eyes, are the worst because they “compound jet lag by heaping sleep deprivation on top of your body clock problems. If you absolutely must take a late-night flight, do what you can to sleep.” I did what I could, but it didn’t help. I was already exhausted by the time I got on the plane. And it was the most uncomfortable seat ever, on the wrong side of the bulkhead so unable to recline much at all, as well as thin on the padding. The thin little airplane blanket did little to protect me from the cold.

We did do a lot of walking while we were there. The sessions were at the University of Manchester, about a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel. I was sharing a room with my friend Violetta, who is training for a half marathon. So on our one free day, we did quite a bit of walking and went for a 14K run along the canal. That left us way too hungry so when we went out for a late dinner at an Italian restaurant near the hotel, we made fast work of the bread and olives. And then we ate some of our mains not because we were still hungry but because we’d ordered them. None of that night’s dinner sat right in my stomach.

I attribute it all to a thrown off routine and horrible jet lag. Now I’m home again, after literally taking a train, a plane, and an automobile on Sunday (travel time: 14 hours including airport lounges), just five days after I left. I don’t remember ever feeling this rough during and after a trip. But unless there are ways of minimizing the impact of crossing time zones, I think my days of the five-day jaunt across the Atlantic are over.

Do you have any strategies or tips for successfully adjusting to a new time zone (when it’s more than a couple of hours of difference)?

9 thoughts on “Trains, Planes, Automobiles, and Jet-lag

  1. I feel you here. Flying back from Sydney, Australia to Boston is the most killer jet lag I’ve ever had. It’s taken me 10 days to really recover. One possible good thing: since you weren’t gone that long (according to your body clock), it may be easier to adjust back to home time. While I was on sabbatical in Sydney, I took a quick 6-day trip to Toronto and Boston (this was crazy– never do this) and back to Sydney. The good news is that when I got back to Sydney, I had basically no jet lag at all (just exhaustion, but I slept like a baby). Let us know how your re-adjustment to home time is going.

    1. I had exactly the same experience when we were living in Sydney and did a 6 day round trip to the US — no jet lag once we got back to Sydney, but super tired. Also can attest to the ” jet lag is worse flying west to east” — also horrible, for those on the eastern side of North America flying from Australia or NZ is the misery that is the last leg of the journey (from Vancouver to London, Ont, for instance). I am going to try breaking the journey home this time with 3 days in Vancouver.

  2. I travel pretty well and can sleep on planes. So I’m lucky and struggle a bit less with this than the average academic, I think.This trip sounds totally miserable and you have my sympathies. I’ve been to Paris for the weekend and New Zealand for 4 days and I’d do both trips again without thinking. But food? That’s harder. I eat a lot less while travelling but I haven’t yet experimented with fasting to help with jet lag. I blogged a bit about that here, Might be worth an experiment.

    1. It was so unusual. I almost always sleep really well on planes, but this time I was freezing and totally uncomfortable. And I should have just skipped that meal at midnight or whenever, but I felt hungry. I’m sure if I didn’t also have to stay up late to do a lot of reading every night I would have been fine. I just didn’t have enough time to sleep even after I landed (not until Saturday morning, which was the third morning and the workshop was over by then). So that was poor time management on my part–forcing me to choose between being unprepared for the sessions or forgoing sleep. I chose to prep for the sessions, and that was a rewarding choice in most every other way.

  3. I don’t usually travel that far for work, but going and coming back within 60 hours does a number on me as well. I have to change everything about the way I eat, exercise, and sleep in order to look even remotely human on weekend business trips.

  4. Tracy, I have tips from my year of going to England for four days every six weeks. They are thus:

    – take the night flight – for working folks like us it’s far easier than losing a whole day in transit. Aim for 10pm if possible, or roughly the time you’d go to bed. Eat an hour before the flight takes off, even if you have to buy or bring food (preferable) to the airport. (You can carry food through security if it isn’t liquid; I have never had anyone care, and I once brought a container of risotto.)
    – take a sleeping pill when boarding starts – it needs half an hour at least to work. Use a pill you’ve used before, not a new brand.
    – once you’re through security, buy a large bottle of water, or bring a refillable one and fill it to the brim. Stay hydrated throughout the flight: drink two litres over the course of a 6-8 hours flight, as you’d do in the day.
    – stock your carry-on with comfort things. Get a really solid, comfortable night mask and ear plugs that suit your ears (won’t fall out), or noise-canceling headphones loaded with soothing sounds (waves, etc). Put these on as soon as the flight takes off. Tell your flight attendant, meanwhile, that you don’t want the meal and don’t want to be disturbed.
    – Bring a really comfortable, warm sweater or poncho. Alt: change into lounge gear at the gate (in the gate area toilets).
    – Buy socks JUST FOR THAT FLIGHT. Walk around the plane in those socks, incl the washrooms. Take them off before putting your shoes back on and discard. If it’s a long flight (10h+), get flight socks – compression socks to help with circulation.
    – (food hint: I often bring an orange, a preferred granola bar, and/or other portable breakfast things on the flight. Breakfast food on long haul flights could rarely be worse – dried out carbs and fat. That way you can also control *when* you eat breakfast.)
    – when you land, find a quiet, clean washroom and change back into street clothes, brush teeth, etc. Mimic a morning routine – it will make you feel a bit refreshed. This is not always possible, of course, but in a pinch use an accessible washroom, which is roomier than most. (Obviously, do a quick scan of the area first to make sure you don’t see anyone with accessibility needs nearby. At Heathrow, there are three accessible washrooms in the luggage reclaim area, so I’ve never had an issue with using one.)
    – unless you’ve had awful sleep, try not to nap in the day. Aim to go to bed as close to a regular time as possible in your new time zone. This is another reason I choose later evening flights: landing circa 10am (assuming a trip to Western Europe or equivalent distance) means arriving at your ultimate destination about noon, and then you only have 8 or so hours to go until bed time. You can make it.
    – whether you are hungry or not, eat some food at each meal time in your new time zone. This helps your body adjust and preps you for sleep.

    Sorry for the long reply. I’ve gone from AWFUL jet lag to entirely manageable jet lag on transatlantic flights as a result of the above strategies. I hope it helps.

    One final tip: when possible, buy access to an airport lounge. There are more comfortable seats, very clean bathrooms, and often decent food in the lounges, making the wait for the flight less institutional and a little more “homey”.


    1. Kim, this is a great list! Thank you. I can see now that I did a number of things wrong on my flight over (though it was a nightflight). I love the discarded socks idea! I would never have thought of that (how did you come up with it)? I will print this and put it in a file. Thank you!

  5. Reblogged this on Fit Is a Feminist Issue and commented:

    Despite that when I wrote this last year I ended with, “But unless there are ways of minimizing the impact of crossing time zones, I think my days of the five-day jaunt across the Atlantic are over,” here I am again in the UK for less than one week. I modified things a bit by trying something new: a day flight across the Atlantic instead of an overnight flight. Instead of arriving in London in the morning, I got to my hotel by 10:30 at night. Bedtime! Except my body didn’t feel quite ready yet. It’s an experiment that so far isn’t going all that well. Conference sessions start today. We’ll see if the adjustment period goes any better! Cheerio!

  6. I used to be able to sleep on planes, but I discovered (to my horror) that I’d lost that ability last year on a flight from DC to Frankfurt. I was in a middle seat, with limited leg room, and it was overly warm. I took my usual sleeping pill, and then spent the next six hours utterly miserably awake but wanting to sleep.

    I had a similar experience in being unable to sleep, but at least in a better seat/temp on the return flight. Earlier this year, I tried again (without drugs) to sleep on a flight to London, but again I failed. In the end, I found that mind-numbing/distracting activities such as the in-flight entertainment (catching up on all those movies I’ve meant to see) was the best way to pass the time. I drank plenty of water and caught up with my sleep once I arrived at my destination.

    I think the next time I’ll try the day flight if I have the option.

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