A Flight Attendant’s Jet Lag Survival Guide

The summer I turned 19, having dropped out of college amid some personal upheaval, I decided to apply to be a flight attendant. I wanted to get out into the world, meet interesting people, and gaze at the ocean from the other side. 

I quickly realized being a flight attendant is a very difficult and physically taxing job.

I started working at JMC Airlines, a now-shuttered short-haul carrier. In a regular shift, I would travel through 2 to 3 time zones and experience two takeoffs and two landings, traveling from my home in the U.K. to European destinations as varied as Tenerife in the Canary Islands and Salzburg in Austria.

My ankles would swell and my tummy would expand with a heavy dose of gas and bloating. But most notably, my internal body clock was all over the place. Returning home to my shared house near the airport at 3 a.m., I wouldn’t know whether to fix myself a late dinner, an early breakfast or just go straight to bed.

This isn’t a surprise to anyone who travels regularly: When we travel our natural circadian levels are interrupted, and this can make us feel irritable and restless during sleep times and sleepy during daylight hours. 

For flight crews, this is more than an inconvenience, it’s an occupational hazard. Chronic jet lag can increase your risk of disease later in life, from cancer risks to cognitive decline. In the short term, it can mess with your memory and mental function.

After one particularly long night, I almost gave up. We were delayed on the tarmac after an 18-hour shift. My bones were tired; I felt like bursting into tears; and I was still in a different country away from my bed. I turned to my experienced supervisor and asked how she coped with the exhaustion, day in and day out.

She told me about an time-tested rule, passed on from crew member to crew member: The 11 o’clock rule.

“If you arrive at your destination before 11 a.m. you are OK to nap,” she said. “If it’s after, you have to wait until bedtime.”

Getting back on a solid sleep schedule is the best way to combat jet lag’s deleterious effects. And chatting with colleagues, I learned a lot. I found they had a wealth of inside information on how to beat the dreaded jet lag:

1. Drink plenty of water

Flying Magazine reports that dehydration affects everyone on board and can be deadly when it happens to pilots behind the controls. Follow the experts advice and stay hydrated.

“Hydrate, exercise, and eat wholesome foods,” says Heather Sanchez, a veteran flight attendant with Hawaiian Airlines. She also recommends the use of aromatherapy essential oils, such as lavender to encourage relaxation.

2. Avoid salty foods

Salty foods can exacerbate the effects of dehydration and therefore worsen jet lag. Stick to fresh fruits, whole grains, and proteins. Although an increased intake of salt doesn’t directly lead to insomnia, it does increase the likelihood of hypertension and water retention, both of which can make it hard to sleep.

3. Rest on the flight

Use the flight time to arrive well rested and relaxed. As a passenger, you have more opportunity than a working crew to take travel time to refresh your body and mind. So skip the movie and catch 40 winks.

4. When you land go to bed at local time

It can really difficult not to go to sleep when you are feeling tired, but waiting until local bedtime (even if it’s early) will help you to get on the right timezone pronto. If you arrive after 11 a.m. follow this advice from Todd Hall, a Flight Attendant and Independent Vacation Specialist who suggests that travelers resist napping upon arrival and instead “stay awake as long as possible to acclimate your body to its new time zone.”

5. Resist the urge to think about the time at home

As soon as you board the plane change your watch and devices to your new time zone. Bestselling author and Ph.D. economist Daniel Lacalle, who travels frequently for book engagements and lectures, suggests to start before you even leave home: “Prepare a couple of days before by adapting slowly to the hours of the country you are about to visit.”

Travel is a chance to explore a new and exciting locale, follow these simple tips from the experts to make sure you enjoy every minute.

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