Anita’s case was extreme but, in the UAE, not altogether unique.
In the space of just four weeks, she had flown away on four major trips: from Dubai and back to New York and Istanbul for work, to London on holiday, and then Phuket to a wedding. On the day she arrived back from the last of the quartet, she declared herself ready for some serious stay-at-home-time. Then she received a call saying her mother had fallen ill back home in Durban. She booked a flight to South Africa the next day.
‘I was shattered,’ says the 42-year-old management consultant. ‘The constant rushing about was exhausting but it was the continually shifting time zones that really got me. My body didn’t know whether it was coming or going, and it just seemed to give up. By the time I got to Durban, mum was actually fine – it was a bit of a false scare – but I ended up spending two days in bed with sickness and stomach cramps.’
She is, it would seem, not the only person to experience such extreme effects of global movement.
The UAE is indisputably a country of travellers – and, it would seem, a country of jetlag sufferers too.
Health experts here reckon that, as a society, we are more prone to suffer from the flight-based syndrome than those living in other parts of the world.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that we tend to fly more than the global average – like Anita, many of us head abroad on holidays, business and visits back home multiple times a year. And the second is that we tend to fly longer – that’s because of the UAE’s unique geographic location several time zones away from the major centres of America, Asia and Europe.
The result is that dream treks and business trips alike can all too easily become one way tickets to exhaustion, fatigue and irritability. Worse still, in extreme cases, jetlag can lead to nausea, constipation, cramps and diarrhoea as the body’s internal clock is thrown into disarray.
‘I know I’m not the only one this has happened too,’ says Anita, a mother-of-three of Dubai Motor City. ‘I’ve had clients and friends tell me they’d like to go abroad for a few days but they can’t face the tiredness afterwards. They say it’s not worth it so they don’t bother.’
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
A growing school of thought says that by eating the right foods before, during and after a flight, we can largely negate the more crushing effects of jetlag. Yes, even on that 16-hour monster to Auckland.
A series of studies have found the body’s natural 24-hour-cycle – its ‘circadian rhythm’ – is tuned not just to daylight but also to food intake. Which means that, while flying between different time zones can upset our internal clocks and leave us fatigued, eating the right snacks and meals at the right time can check these effects and keep our inbuilt rhythm running smoothly.
So, what exactly are these wonder foods? And when should we be eating them?
Before the flight
The key to avoiding jetlag can largely be described in a single word: preparation.
Which is to say that success in staying fighting fit post-flight depends hugely on what we eat before it.
‘This is a very difficult subject to give general advice on because, obviously, what and when you should eat depends on the flight you’re catching,’ explains Christopher James Clark, a Dubai-based dietician and author of the award-winning book, Nutritional Grail. ‘A three-hour afternoon hop east to Mumbai is a very different proposition to a 16 hour middle-of-the-night haul west to Los Angeles. But, as always with food, there are some good universal rules which can help.’
Perhaps most important of all, experts reckon, is staying well hydrated in the days leading up to the flight.
Nadia Bornman, a dietician with the Beyond Nutrition wellness centre in JLT, Dubai, says eight to 10 glasses a day should be standard.
‘When you fly your body and its natural rhythms go through a lot of disruption so it’s vital they are in optimum condition to cope with this, and the best way to do that is by keeping hydrated beforehand,’ she explains. ‘It means your body is better able to deal with the fatigue and stress which flying inevitable causes.’
For similar reason, she recommends avoiding caffeine, alcohol and salty foods in the run up to travelling – because they all cause dehydration. ‘Swap them for herbal teas and water-based fruit snacks,’ she says.
Another key tip is to have a good, preferably home-cooked meal before leaving for the airport.
‘What you want is something rich in protein and complex carbohydrates,’ says Chris, who is based in Sports City. ‘So that would be something like a piece of salmon or baked chicken with lots of leafy fresh greens and perhaps a portion of brown rice.’
These foods work well because they are easily digested and release sugar slowly into the bloodstream, meaning energy levels are kept constant while in the air. That means avoiding fluctuations between restlessness and fatigue which can come after high fat and high sugar meals.
‘In an ideal world, you should be boarding the flight with a satiated appetite but entirely relaxed and comfortable,’ says Chris.
During the flight
It is a relatively well-documented fact that at 30,000 feet, in an airtight can, a person’s senses lose their sharpness. Taste and smell no longer function at their optimum.
What’s less well known, perhaps, is that many airlines take this into account when producing on-board meals. To ensure the food doesn’t seem bland to our numbed senses, they add extra salt, sugar and sodium.
‘Not to overstate things but those meals are basically a tray of jetlag waiting to happen,’ says Chris. ‘They are filled with the stuff you should avoid. My advice is, if possible, don’t eat them.’
Indeed, it is advice supported by a ground-breaking study carried out by the Harvard Medical School in the US in 2014. This research showed that arriving hungry at our destination – and ready to immediately sync with local meal times – is one of the best ways of readjusting our circadian rhythms.
‘We discovered that a single cycle of starvation followed by refeeding...effectively overrides the circadian rhythms and places them onto a new time zone,’ wrote lead researcher Dr Clifford Saper. ‘So simply avoiding any food on the plane and then eating as soon as you land should help you adjust – and avoid some of the uncomfortable feelings of jetlag.’
If going the full flight without eating isn’t realistic, think snacks rather than meals. Pack them before leaving home if possible. Nuts, peanuts, seeds, veggie sticks, yogurt, prunes and granola bars are all recommended.
‘Again, anything that’s high in protein will help keep energy levels steady,’ says Chris. ‘High fibre foods are useful too for helping your digestion system stay nice and regular.’
Nadia goes further and recommends, if you feel you need more than a snack, packing your own light meal. ‘A grilled chicken sandwich on wholegrain bread is easy to make beforehand and tasty once travelling,’ she says.
If it’s a real long-haul where avoiding some plane grub is too difficult, she advises ordering a low sodium option ahead of the flight if the airline offers such a service. If not, avoid any sauces and look for key words: grilled, baked boiled. ‘These will be the healthier of the options,’ she recommends.
Depending on flight times and length, sleeping on-board might be advisable – and there are foods which can help with this too.
Cherries and cherry juice are one of nature’s best source of melatonin, a relaxant hormone which helps with sleep. So too are goji berries, fresh ginger, lemon juice, camomile tea and – if you dare open a tin on a plane – sardines.
‘Anything like this not only helps you get to sleep but then helps make that sleep more restorative which is exactly what you need when you’re having to catch a nap,’ says Chris.
After the flight
So far, so good, then. But if you get the arrival bit wrong, all your good dietary work up to now will be for nothing.
The over-riding message here is to sync quickly with local meal times. If that means you are arriving for lunch but don’t feel hungry, still have a little something anyway so you can then last through until the evening meal. Conversely, if you’re landing in the middle of the night and are feeling peckish, do see if you can hold off for breakfast for your first proper meal.
‘The quicker you get your circadian rythms correlating to your destination the better,’ says Chris.
The problem is that sleep deprivation will likely cause pangs of hunger.
‘In this case, I would go with a banana, which is packed with potassium and vitamins or a tennis-ball sized piece of fruit, an apple perhaps,’ says Nadia. ‘And remember to keep drinking water. Often a glass can quell hunger until meal time.’
Another key food here is eggs. Because they are such a good source of B12, they help maximise our body’s natural response to the daylight and nightfall meaning they actively help our inbuilt rhythms adjust. Along similar lines are crab, soy products and, for the brave perhaps, liver.
Surprisingly, this this may also be one of the few occasions when a dietician recommends a cup of coffee.
‘What you don’t want to be doing is landing in the middle of the day and going to bed for several hours – because that will just exacerbate the jetlag,’ says Chris. ‘So if a cup of coffee and a small piece of dark chocolate gives you that energy boost to get through an afternoon meeting or a spot of sightseeing, there’s certainly no harm. Although, of course, don’t have either too close to bed time. And don’t have more than a couple of cups in 24 hours.’
All of which, should mean you’re fighting fit and unfatigued for your time away, be it business or pleasure.
Then, you just need to do the same once again for the return trip. Happy lag-free travels.
Wearing sunglasses, and other ways to beat jetlag
• Wear sunglasses ahead of your flight
Your circadian rhythms respond to your eyes detecting light. Controlling your exposure in the days leading up to your flight can, when done in time with your destination clock, help you adjust more easily to a new time zone.
• Use technology
Glasses that provide exposure to mimicked daylight have recently gone on the market – although at Dh1,000 they don’t come cheap. There are websites, meanwhile, that allow you to type in your flight details and receive specific plans for beating jetlag.
• Check in online
Stress reduces our chance of restorative sleep and lack of sleep can result in jetlag – so do whatever you can to stay calm in transit. Little things like checking in ahead of arriving at the airport and knowing your destination hotel can ease worries and make travel more relaxing.
• Exercise mid-air
Take walks, do arm exercises, stretch regularly. Keeping your body active while you’re flying will keep the blood circulating, which helps fight fatigue and other ailments.
• Stay on home time
If it’s a short trip and it’s convenient, some experts suggest simply staying on your home clock and time eating and sleeping to occur as they would here in the UAE.