Is it possible to cure jet lag? ‘Sleep in the week before travel is our most important’ | Australian lifestyle

Post-Covid lockdowns, long-haul flights are back for a long time but rarely a good time. Australia and New Zealand’s home at the bottom of the globe means many of us are no stranger to long-haul flights. That means we’re also unpleasantly acquainted with jet lag, that woozy, unsettled sluggishness that some people describe as a mix of feeling exhausted, slightly drunk or like you’ve been hit by a truck.

As Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, invests more in ultra long-haul flights – such as its new Sydney-Auckland-New York service – jet lag isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. But research into the phenomenon is uncovering new ways to keep it at bay.

The sleep scientist’s method: adjust your exposure to light

What is jet lag, anyway? Dr Svetlana Postnova, a senior lecturer in neurophysics and brain dynamics at the University of Sydney who has been studying sleep and circadian rhythms for more than 18 years, knows the answer.

She explains that each of our cells contains a circadian clock, and those clocks control the timing of everything that happens in our body, from sleep to hormone levels. Jet lag occurs when our internal clocks are misaligned with the environment, which affects everything from tiredness to food cravings.

A lone man sitting in an economy class airline seat with sunshine coming in through the windows
An experimental Qantas flight from Sydney to New York in 2019, where University of Sydney researchers adjusted passengers’ light exposure in the hopes of reducing jet lag. Photograph: James D Morgan/Qantas

By controlling your light exposure, you can help those clocks adjust. Sitting in bright light at the right time of day or night either delays or advances your circadian clock, bringing it closer to the environment you’re travelling to.

With this front of mind, Postnova and her colleagues have been conducting experiments with Qantas, to see if adjusting the lights on long-haul flights – such as the new 16-hour non-stop flight from Auckland to New York – helps minimise jet lag.

Instead of keeping the cabin in darkness for most of the journey, which is what airlines typically do, the scientists tailored the timing of light exposure on the flights to help their subjects shift their clocks in the right direction.

Compared with a control group, their findings were small-scale but promising. “Self-reported jet lag was shorter in the optimised group,” Postnova says. “And we also saw that their objective alertness was higher for two days after the flight.”

If you’re not flying on a light-optimised flight, you could try to adjust your light exposure yourself, though Postnova acknowledges this can be “tricky”. You need to account for how far ahead or behind the destination is from your home, and whether you’re flying east or west.

Then, you should blast yourself with an hour or so of bright light in either the early morning, or after dark, for a few days to help shift your clock in the right direction. “You could also use the entertainment screen on the flight for a bit of light exposure,” she says.

If you were flying from Sydney to London, a trip which takes you “backward” by between seven and nine hours, you would adjust by delaying your sleep and exposing yourself to bright light in the afternoon and evening before you fly, while avoiding morning light, Postnova says. Whereas if you were flying back from Europe (taking your body clock “forwards”) you would want to start waking up earlier and seek light in the early morning.

A woman leaning out the window of an apartment in Paris at sunrise
Exposing yourself to early morning light before you take off may help your body adjust to moving forwards in time. Photograph: lechatnoir/Getty Images

But, Postnova cautions that how you adjust will depend on how much you go backwards and forwards in time. Once the time difference between where you’re arriving and where you’re leaving is above 12-14 hours, it may be easier for your body clock to adjust by going the opposite way.

That complexity is why, ultimately, she’d like to see airlines doing the hard work for you. “It would be nice to see more flights using circadian-smart light schedules.”

The elite athlete’s method: bank your sleep beforehand

For athletes like champion artistic gymnast Heath Thorpe, jet lag can be more than just a performance hindrance. It can be dangerous, messing with things like aerial awareness and depth perception.

Heath Thorpe photographed from above competes on the horizontal bar
Heath Thorpe competes at the 2022 Gymnastics World Championships in Liverpool, UK. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

“One of the worst times for me was at the 2019 World University Games in Italy. We got in about 24 hours before podium training, which is essentially a dress rehearsal for gymnastics,” Thorpe says. “It was terrible. I remember falling on everything, not knowing where I was.” Rattled, he eventually called time on the practice. Mercifully, he’d shaken off the worst of his jet lag once the actual competition began.

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Usually, Thorpe says organisers do their best to fly Australian athletes to their competition destinations with at least a week’s lead time, but in the run-up, team medics advise that athletes to “bank” as much sleep as possible.

“We’re told that the sleep in the week before we travel is our most important sleep,” Thorpe says. He makes an effort to get between eight and ten hours’ of shut-eye each night for a week before departure.

Doctors have also told Thorpe and his team not to bother trying to “adjust” to their destination’s time zone by fiddling with their sleep times on the flight, which fits with Dr Postnova’s admission that deliberately adjusting your own internal clock can be error-prone. Plus, says Thorpe: “The quality of sleep you get on a flight is always going to be horrendous anyway … So it’s really not worth the effort.”

The flight attendant’s method: nourish yourself properly

Kara Mulder a former commercial and current corporate flight attendant, who now writes about life in the air at flightattendantlife.com, says that when she was regularly flying long-haul, the turnaround times on the ground were sometimes so short that jet lag barely had time to set in.

“Your body never had time to adjust to anything,” she says of working back-to-back routes between the USA and Europe. “You just rested where you could and then kept going. It was so stressful and wreaked havoc on your body.”

“And when you’re tired, you don’t know if you’re hungry, if you want to sleep or you want to cry.”

A bottle of chia and watermelon juice
Chia and watermelon juice is Kara Mulder’s in-flight snack of choice (when liquid restrictions allow). Photograph: FantasticRabbit/Getty Images

Her remedy was to keep up the routines that she already knew would be good for her body and mind. “I switched from coffee to matcha tea with almond milk and I think that made me feel better,” she says. She also drank water at every opportunity and practised yoga before she slept at her destination, to help her wind down.

These days when she flies as a passenger, Mulder brings her own food on the plane when possible. “In the US, I bring fresh watermelon juice and add chia,” she says, though she acknowledges that liquid laws prohibit this in Australia.

She also makes whole wheat veggie wraps and throws in some fruit or protein balls.

“Airline food just doesn’t make me feel very good, and I think that adds to your sense of lethargy,” she says. “It’s not all terrible – and I’ll eat it sometimes – but eating something easier to digest seems to help me feel less tired.”

  • This article was amended on 17 July 2023 to correctly show Dr Svetlana Postnova’s current position and university.