Don’t be a tired traveller

Sleep cycles often go for a toss when you are on the move

tired man sitting on bed

Have you struggled to stay awake in a business meeting happening seven time zones from home? Have you been excited about a vacation in Paris, only to find yourself dozing off over your Coquilles St. Jacques [a French scallop recipe]?

More often than not, disrupted sleep cycles put a damper on your travel experience. But if you know a few secrets, travelling can be enjoyable, productive, and relaxing rather than stressful and exhausting.

Air travel

Jet lag spells trouble for a traveller. It occurs when you cross multiple time zones in a short period. We’re able to jet over multiple zones in a matter of hours, but our internal biological clocks can’t acclimate that fast, and we feel out of sync. The effects are most pronounced when flying east or west.

The main symptoms of jet lag include daytime sleepiness, insomnia, poor concentration, slower reaction times, and gastro-intestinal problems. Depending on your sensitivity to time change, jet lag starts becoming apparent after you cross three time zones. After that, it usually takes about one day to recover from each zone crossed.

Children under age three seem to be unaffected by jet lag, but the older you get, the more it impacts your body and mind. Outgoing, social people, as well as people who tend to be more flexible, find it easier to adjust to time-zone change than reserved, shy, and tranquil folks.

Here’s how to minimise jet lag:

Pre-flight

  • Adjust your biological clock. Start living on destination time before you’ve even left your home.
  • Avoid early morning departures.
  • Arrive at your destination in time for a full night’s sleep. Reach a day early and get some rest.
  • Avoid red-eye flights—flights that depart late in the night, typically after 10pm.
  • Pre-select a comfortable seat. Choose one that reclines [those in emergency rows don’t] and one that offers a little extra legroom [any on the aisle]. Steer clear of bathrooms, galleys, and bulkhead seats.
  • Arrive at the airport early. This makes things less stressful, plus it betters your chances for an upgrade.
  • Pack a sleeping bag. Include an eye mask, travel pillow, earplugs, slipper socks, gum [for equalising ear pressure on takeoff and landing], moisturiser, lip balm, and a nasal decongestant. Wear loose-fitting clothes and dress in layers for warmth and comfort.
  • Don’t leave trip preparations until the last minute. Be well-rested, not exhausted, when you start your journey.

In-flight

  • As soon as you’re seated, set your watch to destination time.
  • Drink lots of water and juice to counter dehydration.
  • Avoid consuming stimulants [including caffeine] and alcohol.
  • Remove contact lenses to avoid dryness and irritation.
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Use a light-generating gadget to help reset your biological clock. You can simulate daytime during a night flight with a battery-operated, artificial-light gadget such as the Litebook.
  • Stroll down the aisle periodically to improve blood circulation. When muscles become tense from immobility, heavy fatigue may set in. Stretch in your seat to help you stay limber and build energy prior to arrival.

Post-flight

  • If you fly east and it’s morning at your destination, but still the middle of the night in your head, don’t go to sleep. Even though you’re exhausted, it’s better to push through the day and fall into bed early that evening.
  • If you fly west and it’s already evening according to your biological clock, spend time outdoors in the afternoon sun. The light will help you feel fresher and adjust your internal clock.

At the hotel

  • Request for an out-of-the-way room. Reserving a room on an upper floor and away from elevators, stairways, and vending machines will limit your noise exposure.
  • Pull the drapes at night to block city light and reduce noise.
  • Keep the room at 65 degrees [around 18 degrees Celsius].
  • Get some exercise. If you need to stay up, even a brisk walk after a long flight will raise your endorphin levels. This will reduce stiffness and pain, relax your muscles, and suppress drowsiness.
  • Bolt the door and hang out the “Do not disturb” sign.
  • Set the alarm and request a wake-up call.

Car travel

man sleeping in car

Many drivers insist they can tell when they’re about to fall asleep, but research shows otherwise. Most drivers who nod off do so without knowing it.

Sleep expert William C Dement says many people experience ‘microsleeps’ or ‘uncontrollable and unpredictable bouts of sleep that happen faster than a seizure.’ We may fall asleep only for a few seconds, but, behind the wheel of a car, even that much is enough to do a lot of damage.

Drowsy driving is equal to drunk driving. Here are the drowsy driving warning signs:

  • Uncontrollable yawning
  • Heavy eyelids
  • Loss of focus
  • Drooping head
  • Wandering thoughts
  • Memory loss of how you got from one place to another
  • Drifting lanes, tailgating, and missing traffic signals
  • Continually jerking the car back into the lane or drifting off of the road.

How can I stay awake when I feel drowsy?

If you experience any of the above-mentioned symptoms of drowsy driving, pull over immediately to a safe area, lock your doors, and take a nap.

A 15- to 20-minute power nap will only supply about 30 more minutes of driving time, though. Drink some strong coffee or cola and take a brisk walk before resuming your trip.

Remember that if you experience one or more of the warning signs, you’re driving impaired and are endangering yourself and others.

Also, opening windows, turning on the air conditioning, or cranking the radio will not prevent you from falling asleep at the wheel if you’re sleep-deprived.

So what can I do to stay safe if I am driving long distance?

  • Start well rested. Driving requires total mental and physical alertness. So get adequate sleep the week before you leave.
  • Don’t rely on caffeine or medications to stay awake. Although caffeine will give you a short burst of energy, it’s not a replacement for real rest and alertness.
  • Stay on schedule. Drive when you’re most alert.
  • Avoid driving through the night. Your body craves sleep after dark.
  • Don’t put yourself in a time bind. Plan for congestion, bad weather, and unpredictable delays by leaving early.
  • If possible, don’t drive alone. Conversation and sharing the driving load relieves tiredness and monotony.
  • Be uncomfortable. Adjust the car temperature and environment so it’s not too pleasant. Keep the temperature cool and avoid listening to soft, sleep-inducing music.
  • Don’t use cruise control.
  • Take frequent breaks. Stop and get out of the car once every two hours. Eat a light, protein-rich snack to facilitate alertness. Chewing gum also helps keep you sharp.
  • Exercise during breaks. Move your body briskly to increase heart rate and boost alertness.
  • Monitor your medications. Avoid driving if you have used drugs that induce drowsiness.
  • Do not consume alcohol. Even one drink, if you’re tired, can severely impair your ability to drive.
  • Move eyeballs. Instead of staring straight ahead, scan your mirrors and the road, blinking frequently and naturally.
  • Book the roadside Ritz. If you’re driving for consecutive days, make sure you get a good sleep on the in-between nights.

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James Maas
James B. Maas, Ph.D. is Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor of Psychology at Cornell University. He is co-founder and CEO of the consulting firm, Sleep for Success, which designs programs for enhancing sleep quality and daytime performance.
Sharon Driscoll
Sharon R. Driscoll is a pre-medical student at Cornell University and a member of the Sleep for Success consulting firm, where she delivers educational presentations on sleep education and research.

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