If you have ever travelled for business, this scene is probably familiar: Your overnight transatlantic flight is about an hour from its destination, a flurry of activity fills the cabin as breakfast is served, and you realize you have slept for a grand total of one hour.
Adrenalin might power you through that first day of meetings, but a late night of entertaining clients and travel-related insomnia is taking its toll as you stare down a full slate of important meetings in the day ahead. You're tired, your body is in a state of confusion – in short, you are jet lagged.
The good news: You are not alone. Virtually every international business traveller experiences jet lag in some form or another.
And as Brian Murray, a neurologist and sleep specialist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre explains, it is completely unavoidable. That is because jet lag is caused when the 24-hour molecular cycle that regulates every cell in our bodies – commonly known as the circadian rhythm – is thrown out of sync.
"This is a hard-wired biology in the brain, and when we buck that, there's a consequence and that's jet lag," he says.
Normally, organisms on the move across multiple time zones (usually walking) adapt to the rise and fall of the sun in a slow and methodical manner and do not notice the change. Not so with long-haul travel.
"If you fly Toronto to Paris, it will be six days until you're fully trained to the new time zone in a perfect scenario, but most of us function with less than perfect adaption," Dr. Murray notes.
Indeed, most business travellers simply lack the time needed for proper time zone adaptation.
While no studies exist that quantify the economic impact of jet lag, most would agree that time is money and the ability to impress overseas clients on a business trip can make or break a deal.
Allowing jet lag to take control, no matter how debilitating its short-term effects, is simply not an option for business leaders. Just ask Shamira Jaffer.
The CEO of Mississauga-based automated vending machine manufacturer Signifi Solutions Inc., travels at least once a month to visit clients around the world and has mastered the art of adjusting to different time zones. But not without her fair share of nightmare jet-lag experiences.
"On one trip I flew to Dubai via London on a red-eye flight and just crashed in my room when I got there," she recalls. "I basically had to postpone everything, including meetings, by one day because I just wasn't 100 per cent. I've learned a lot of lessons from that."
Since then, Ms. Jaffer has developed a jet lag-mitigating routine.
First, she tries to avoid those dreaded red-eye flights that force travellers (save those who can actually sleep on planes) to sacrifice most or all of a night's sleep. "I try to fly where I leave in the morning and get to my destination in the evening so I can get work done on the plane," she explains. "Then it's close to dinner time when I land and it's time for bed."
In fact, Edmonton-based sleep disorder specialist Atul Khullar advises business travellers to start acclimatizing to their destination time zone the minute they board a flight. "You want to live in that time zone, including sleeping when it would be night there," he advises.
But travellers beware. While many frequent fliers use sleep medication to get a full night's sleep, Dr. Khullar cautions that stronger sedatives carry a hangover effect that can sometimes exacerbate jet-lag symptoms. If necessary, he recommends lighter options, such as the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin.
Ms. Jaffer avoids sleep aids altogether, instead preferring to hit the gym on travel days to help keep her body in sync, while also minimizing the amount of food and alcohol she consumes while in the air to minimize bloating, aid digestion and avoid potential hangovers – all while constantly drinking water to remain hydrated.
It turns out that saying "No thanks" to that extra glass of Cabernet is a good idea.
Alcohol can be a major factor in prolonging jet lag, according to Dr. Khullar. His simple rule: Keep the alcohol at a minimum when travelling. "If you wouldn't have a drink at 4 a.m. in Toronto, don't have one at 4 a.m. in London," he says.
And when you land, don't head to your hotel, pull the curtains and try to sleep off the jet lag. In fact, Dr. Murray recommends doing the opposite.
"I tell people to get out into bright light in the early morning and exercise," he says, adding that a reasonable amount of caffeine in the morning can also help business travellers function and reset their body clocks faster.
But what happens when, during a make-or-break business meeting, jet lag overcomes even the hardiest traveller? Simple, says Dr. Murray. Stand up and walk around to avoid drowsiness, remain alert and even demonstrate engagement by delivering ideas or a presentation while on the move.
Ms. Jaffer employs one other technique to help mitigate jet lag: She refuses to take calls past a certain hour.
"My personal issue is that if I'm in Europe and my office in Toronto will still be open, I could be on e-mail and end up going to bed very late. I've made it a rule that after 3 p.m. Toronto time I don't deal with anyone at home. Otherwise I'm on the phone until 1 a.m. when I have an early meeting the next day."
In other words, jet lag needs to be managed like a business – strategically and with purpose. Not to mention an extra power nap or two.
Tips to beat jet lag
Jet lag is a burden for every long-haul business traveller, but it can be managed. Brian Murray, a neurologist and sleep specialist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, offers his tips for overcoming jet lag and maximizing productivity on your next business trip across time zones:
While not always practical, Dr. Murray advises business travellers to arrive at their destination a day or two in advance to help adjust to the new time zone and establish a new sleep-wake cycle.
Enjoy the sunshine
Light is an essential factor in helping to reset our circadian rhythms. A recent study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that exposure to rapid bursts of light similar to a camera flash can be an effective way to reset our body clocks faster. The only catch is that it means carrying a lightbox on every trip, making it highly impractical for most business travellers. Dr. Murray's advice instead is to forget the cumbersome equipment and spend as much time outdoors absorbing sunlight as possible to help adjust to a new time zone.
If you jog, swim or hit the gym regularly at home, don't stop when you're on the road. Exercise can be an important factor in adjusting to new time zones, according to Dr. Murray. Starting each day with your preferred workout routine can help ease common jet-lag side effects such as confusion, while helping to boost alertness.