Thursday, March 12, 2015

The secret to avoiding jet-lag on red-eye flights

OK, folks, here it is: the secret to avoiding jet-lag on red-eye flights.  I learned this from Patrick Winston, who claimed to have learned it from his time serving as a research advisor for the US Navy. The US military, of course, has a deep interest in all things related to sleep, including jet lag, and has invested quite a bit into learning how to best manage it over the years.  The bit that I remember, and have successfully deployed on many occasions, is this:

First, you must understand the principle: your body keeps its circadian rhythm entrained with the cycle of day and night by having a natural rhythm that is slightly longer than a day, and resetting it on encountering bright light in the morning.  Artificial bright light, however, is all around us, including in the LCD screens that dominate our modern environment.  So when you stay up late in artificial light, that makes your body think the day is longer, and drag you "Westward" in your rhythm.  Red-eye flights, however, are generally East-bound, and so if you follow the natural course and try to stay up, your body thinks it is a super-long day, runs out of patience and tries to put you to sleep in the middle of the day, gets very confused, and you end up completely screwed up with jet-lag.

Instead, you want to convince your body that it is a super-short day.  For this, you need to shut out all light, so you need one of those sleep blinders.  It doesn't need to be fancy, just to shut out the light and be sufficiently comfortable that you can keep it on all night without ever removing it: you can generally get a decent one for less than $10.

As soon as you get on the plane, get comfortable, buckle up, and put on the blinder.  Do it before takeoff.  Skip dinner, skip the movies, and don't take the blinder off until you smell breakfast.  Just relax and rest---sleep if you can, but resting will do OK even if you can't sleep, and you'll probably drift in and out.  Your body, deprived of light, will think it's a short day and move your rhythm "Eastward"---not all the way, but enough that you won't have to fight sleep in the middle of the day, can be quite functional immediately, and will be fully adjusted within another day or so.

I find this works quite well, and have added one more filigree of my own: I go stir-crazy if I'm sitting in the dark but not asleep, so I need something to occupy my mind.  For that, I listen to audio books, and in particular, on a red-eye flight, I always listen to an audio book that I have already listened to, preferably multiple times.  This does two important things for me: 1) it's not new for me, so it's not exciting enough to stay awake for, and 2) I can have a vague sense of how long is left in the flight without looking by the progress of the story.

With audio books and a blinder combined, I find that I can manage pretty much any red-eye comfortably and effectively, with minimal jet-lag, and I strongly recommend them to you as well.

Good luck, and happy traveling!
Chicago O'Hare airport at dawn

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