How do travel professionals and experts beat jet lag? Steve Madgwick talks to a doctor, a former long-haul flight engineer and a travel professional to see how they suggest to combat it.

The Doctor

Dr Brian Morton, Chair, Council of General Practice, Australian Medical Association (AMA)

What causes jet lag?”

Quite simply, it occurs when we cross time zones and our body clock hasn’t adjusted to the different time zone. Normally bright light/sunlight sets our wake-up and sleep cycle and it’s this change in exposure to light where it begins.”

Any long-term effects for frequent travellers?

“It may affect not only people’s moods but their behaviour and relationships too. Your interaction with people can be more aggressive, you can display poor judgement and, of course, be more drowsy than usual. Attention span, memory and reasoning abilities change so smart companies get their executives there the day before a critical meeting.”

Some people say it’s possible to be jet lagged on a flight from Sydney to Perth?

“It is an east-west time difference so maybe there is some true jet lag in it, but it’s probably mainly sleep deprivation. The AMA meets in Canberra so it flies over Perth doctors, who usually come the night before, but if they come in on a morning flight, you watch them wilt during the day, virtually asleep in the meeting after lunch.”

Can you beat it entirely?

“People do adapt but it’s down to changing your behaviour and knowing how to cope with it – mothers looking after young babies and shift workers do get tired, but some adapt quite well. But if you assess a passenger’s performance after a flight, with physiological tests, I think that they wouldn’t perform as well as when they’re not travelling across time zones.”

The Doc’s jet lag busting tips:

1. “Take some melatonin, a natural hormone – Circadin, for example. That will help you sleep and adjust to the time difference. Simple hypnotics, such as Temazepam, can help you to adjust to a sleep cycle, but melatonin is more natural – although it doesn’t seem to work after three weeks straight.”
2. “Fly during daytime if possible and then go to bed at night as normally as possible.”
3. “Try to immediately adjust to the new time zone: go to bed at the right time, avoid fatty meals and caffeine, and not too much alcohol on the flight. Make sure you’re well hydrated!”
4. “If it’s still daylight when you arrive, try to expose yourself to outdoor light or high intensity artificial light – especially if you arrive at 4 or 5 in the afternoon.”

The Long-Haul Flight Engineer

David Gilmore, Qantas (retired), regularly flew long-haul Sydney to London, Sydney to Los Angeles and Perth to Johannesburg as in-cockpit flight engineer.

How do airline crews deal with jet lag?

“It’s almost impossible to avoid, but it’s made easier for the crew because there was no alcohol involved, which is a contributing factor. Flying at altitude, the humidity is very low, because the cabin constantly air conditioned, so the smart ones drink water.”

Did you get used to it, after 20 years of flying?

“It was worse when I was new to flying – you live in one timezone and then all of a sudden you start travelling regularly and across numerous timezones. It seemed to be harder flying to London and back. Most of the sectors were flown at night – so it should be daytime for your body but it sees that it’s night time and automatically wants to rest.”

Did Qantas have guidelines?

“The consensus is that you must get some sleep before you fly. And when you’re on a stopover, if you are tired try to sleep, if you are hungry try to eat. Listen to your body, but temper it with where you are. So if you in London and it’s two in the afternoon, and you are really tired, have one or two hours sleep and set a wake-up call for yourself. So you can sort of have a normal day, without waking up at three in the morning. We had a couple of guys who tried to stay on Sydney time wherever they went but that meant they led a very isolated life – they were trying to sleep when everyone else was out enjoying themselves. They would spend two or three days by themselves.”

Long term effects on you?

“I don’t think so, maybe my sleep patterns a bit. I’ve always worked broken hours so even now it’s not uncommon for me to wake up at 4.30 and 5.30 in the morning.”

What the flight crew do

1. “Get as much exercise as you can. Even in your seat you can do leg stretches. When you arrive, and want to go sightseeing, walk instead of catching a cab.”
2. “Hydration! An aeroplane cabin can be dryer than the Sahara and you can be there for 13 hours.”
3. “If you tired have a short sleep, if you are hungry eat.”

The Travel Professional

Quentin Long, owner of Australian Traveller and International Traveller magazines, travels between four and five return long-haul (plus numerous domestic) flights each year.

Does jet lag come knocking?

Yes, it’s getting worse as I get older. I wake up like a lightbulb, at all sorts of hours, and I get very tired. Now that I have two kids, I’m used to being half awake so jet lag is just an extension of this. I think I’m getting better at dealing with it though.

Your worst case?

I went to the Yukon in the middle of the Canadian summer – where the sun sets for two hours and even then it’s only just darkish. I was jetlagged at the same time so I didn’t know whether I was Arthur or Martha. I was at a hotel bar, at 30 minutes past midnight, and two blokes walked in just after finishing their golf round for a couple of beers. I was like “please, let the sun go down so my body knows when to sleep!”

Sounds punishing, any serious physical or physiological effects?

When I was working for Fairfax and flying economy all over the world (for eight months I was on a flight every week), my thyroid started playing up and my doctor said should I stop flying because of long-term stress on my body.

 How Quentin fights the lag

1. “Drink a lot of water on the flight. If you are going to drink alcohol, drink three times as much water (and get an aisle seat).”
2. “As soon as you board the flight try to move your brain to the destination time frame. Sleep if you need to sleep. Sleep if it’s nighttime there.”
3. “The Boeing Dreamliner plane’s big windows have made a big difference to people’s comfort and jet lag. Their pressurisation has actually made a difference to people’s fatigue.”
4. “I do not travel without sleeping pills any more.”