Air travel and sleep cycle adjustment
Air travel and health:
It’s easy to get sick on airplanes, and it’s especially easy if you spend a long time on an airplane,
as we’ll be doing. Let’s do what we can to get to Oxford in good health.
You’ll want to be especially careful in the two weeks prior to travel to keep your immune system
at its maximum strength and to avoid contagion. Wash your hands a lot; stay away from people
who are coughing and sneezing. In the last two or three days before departure, you might
consider taking some Echinacea (which is supposed to stimulate the immune system), a little
extra vitamin C, or whatever you’ve found works for you. If you’re already sick, especially with
a respiratory ailment, when you get on the plane, you’re going to be in big trouble by the time
you get off.
In flight, in addition to the likelihood that 10 – 20% of your fellow passengers are sick and
contagious, and the fact that the air inside the cabin continually re-circulates, thus boosting the
odds that some of the nasty germs will be in your vicinity for a long time, a crucial factor is mild
dehydration and, in particular, drying up of the nasal passages. (Dry nasal passages are more
susceptible to infection; moisture helps to keep the nasty germs sliding out instead of grabbing
on.) If you can buy your own bottled water after passing through the security check, you should
consider doing so. You might also consider having a saline nasal spray (in a regulation sized
baggie) in your carry-on luggage.
Experts generally agree that the best and most efficient way to adjust to a radical time change
(five hours, in our case) is to adapt immediately to the new local eating and sleeping schedule;
when traveling on a red-eye flight as most of us are, that means that even though we will be
stepping off the plane at 2:30 AM Michigan time, we will try to behave as if it really is 7:30 AM,
because it is. Your next meal should be lunch, around noon. And, except maybe for a short nap
on the bus or train from the airport, your next sleep should be at night.
You’ll be fighting two contradictory tendencies in your body: 1.) All day long, it’ll be telling you
to take a nap because it’s exhausted from the overnight flight, but 2.) come nightfall, it won’t be
ready to sleep because it thinks it’s too early. If you can stay awake all day on the day of your
arrival and then get to sleep by 10:00 and then sleep until 7:30 AM local time on the next
morning, you’ll have pretty much made the adjustment.
You can do a couple of things ahead of time to help make the adjustment easier:
1.) Start to adjust your sleep schedule during the week before you leave. Get up an hour or
so earlier; go to bed an hour or so earlier. Or even more. For many of us, melatonin is a
natural and mildly effective sleep aid and can be useful in adjusting our cycles before
departure. Our bodies produce melatonin to make us drowsy after sunset. You can buy
melatonin over the counter at pharmacies and vitamin shops and take it a half an hour
before retiring to get the same drowsy effect.
2.) Sleep as much as you can on the plane. If the flight’s not crowded, try to stake out a row
of seats so you can lie down. Again, melatonin can be helpful: take a dose during the
dinner service, wrap yourself in a blanket after dinner, and try to doze off. If all goes
well, you’ll wake up to the smell of coffee and sausage just in time to see the sun rise
over the Atlantic. (You can help this process along by making sure that you’re tired on
the night of your departure night. Get up extra early that morning. If you’re an exerciser,
do a double or a triple workout. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, stop drinking coffee or
tea by 3:00 PM that day.)