How To Make The Most of Your Sleep When Travelling Abroad

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Travelling can take a toll on your body, especially when it comes to sleep. Many of us have experienced the symptoms of jet lag which is when your body is still in your home time zone meaning you find it difficult to sleep and wake with the local time. This can leave you feeling exhausted, frustrated and struggling to get a proper sleep either when you arrive at your destination or when you return home. In this podcast, the experts discuss how to beat jet lag and ways to improve your sleep while on holiday.

Dr Pixie McKenna and guests discuss how to make the most of your sleep when travelling abroad. Pixie is joined by travel expert Simon Calder, who has been writing about travel for over 25 years, as well as Dr Richard Dawood who has practised as a travel health expert for the last 35 years.


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What you will hear in this podcast on jet lag:

  • The relationship between travel and sleep
  • Sleep and our daily cycle
  • Why we get jet lag
  • The effects of alcohol when flying
  • Keeping your body on home time rather than local time
  • Technology and sleep
  • Tips for long haul flights
  • The weirdest places the guests have slept

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Dr Pixie McKenna [00:00:07] Hello and welcome to the Sleep Matters podcast from Dreams. Everything you need to know about how to get a great night’s sleep and why it matters so much. I’m Dr Pixie McKenna. And in this episode, we’re chatting about the importance of sleep when travelling and how to get through those long haul flights and jet lag when you’re abroad. So what better person to have on board than Simon Calder. Simon is a travel journalist and broadcaster. Welcome.

Simon Calder [00:00:35] Well, thank you. I did wake up quite refreshed for today unlike exactly a year ago when can you believe I did back to back the world’s longest flight from the UK nonstop out to Perth and then back again. Crikey, yes. Not a great journey and so very, very fresh in my mind.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:00:58] Good. Well, I’m glad we didn’t have you in a year ago. You would’ve been asleep at the table. And we also have Dr Richard Dawood, and Richard has practised as their travel health expert for the last 35 years.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:01:09] Yes. Gosh, that sounds a long time.

Simon Calder [00:01:12] Can I just say I hope you don’t mind me. I was describing Richard to a colleague, and I just said he’s Mr Travel Medicine.

Simon Calder [00:01:26] You’re very kind.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:01:27] Let’s kick it off with you Richard, what’s the relationship between travel and sleep?

Dr Richard Dawood [00:01:31] Okay. There are two things that we need to distinguish from each other. The first is the journey itself and the fatigue that goes with it, whether or not you miss any sleep along the way. So a good example of that might be flying from the U.K. to South Africa. That might be an overnight flight, you might arrive in not very good shape the next morning, but you won’t be in a new time zone. So how you feel at the end of that flight really depends on what you do during the journey. Are you going to stay up all night? Are you going to enjoy the first-class food and drinks?

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:02:12] Assuming we’re in first class.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:02:14] Or indeed like the rest of us are you cramped into a very narrow economy seat between two large people unable to sleep. Children crying in the background, and so on. You might arrive in bad shape, you might arrive tired, dehydrated and uncomfortable – but that is not jetlag. So, we need to distinguish between that and an entirely different phenomenon which is when you start your journey in one time zone and a small number of hours later, five or six hours or eight hours later, you find yourself with a time difference that either lengthens your day or compresses your day faster than the body is capable of adapting to.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:03:06] So we find it a little bit easier to lengthen our day. So if you travel from the UK to the US, let’s say a five hour time difference for most of the air between London and the East Coast of the United States. Well, we have a natural daily rhythm, which is about 25 hours rather than 24 hours long. So that’s why most of us find it’s a little bit of a struggle to wake up in the morning. You know if you regularly wake up at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning it’s a bit of a battle because your body really would like that extra hour in bed.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:03:46] That’s good to know. There’s a real reason for it rather than being lazy.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:03:48] Some people are early morning people, and they don’t find that so tricky. I imagine you must be one of those, Simon.

Simon Calder [00:03:53] Well I do get quite a lot, but that’s normally, and you will be fully aware of this Pixie, the curse or is it a joy of the really cheap, really early flight. I mean it used to be in the olden days, and I’m going back quarter of a century here where none of us could afford to fly anywhere if you wanted to go back and forth to Ireland and you were probably on the bus. But now if you’re prepared to get up and be on the six o’clock flight then, of course, you can get a bargain, but the trouble is working backwards — six o’clock flight. So you got to be at the airport at half-past four or five. You’ve got to get there. So you’re getting up at two o’clock in the morning. Can I just ask though Richard, why if since humans have been around for a couple of million years perhaps, why are we still out of sync with the cosmos, that seems weird?

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:04:40] Yeah, sort it out, Richard! [LAUGHS]

Dr Richard Dawood [00:04:45] Well I’m afraid that’s just the way we’ve been built. There are lots of other things we could definitely redesign into the body. You know we could do without prostates and a few other organs that annoy us and aren’t quite as well-designed as perhaps they ought to have been. But that’s the way it is and if you shut people up in a cave, and people do experiments like this, where you remove all outside stimuli and let the body adapt its own natural rhythm. That’s what you find, that for the majority of people it’s on a 25 hour cycle rather than an exact 24-hour cycle.

Simon Calder [00:05:24] And that’s how Richard spends his holidays – in a cave. [LAUGHS]

Dr Richard Dawood [00:05:27] So for that reason doing the same journey but in different directions gives you a rather different experience. So, for example, you can arrive in New York and adapt to an extended day quite easily. And so you’re effectively staying up later. But if you try to do the same journey in reverse when it’s bedtime you don’t really want to go to sleep. It’s actually quite hard to compress the day and make yourself fall asleep when you’re not tired.

Simon Calder [00:05:58] Just on that subject of going across say to New York from London, I was speaking to a grandmother who makes that journey many times each year to see her grandchildren. And she says that the daytime flights coming back from the US are known as grandmother and chairmans’ flights because they are the only people who can afford the time to take a daytime flight because, of course, if you’re a high-pressure business woman or man then you are going to want a whole day in Manhattan, and then you fly back overnight. Yes but if you can spare the time and be kind to yourself. That would not work.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:06:39] Yeah, that absolutely works. So obviously the opposite of that is the red eye, the overnight flight, where there just isn’t enough time to get enough sleep. So if you do it overnight, what is billed as an overnight flight is actually only about, you know, maybe five or six hours long. And if you deduct the preliminaries of getting buckled in and getting to an altitude where you can begin to recline your seat and at the other end the breakfast option where they wake you up two hours before you need to land. That’s not very much time to sleep. If you could do it during the day, you actually really minimise sleep loss. So what you’re left with is still disorientation at the other end, the jet lag, but you’ve removed the fatigue element from it.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:07:30] So those effects I suppose that you get, the jet lag effect, what’s the science behind those Ricard?

Dr Richard Dawood [00:07:34] So with jet lag, what happens is that your speed of travel outstrips the body’s ability to adapt. The body adapts to new time zones at the rate of approximately one hour per day of time difference. So bearing in mind as I said if you’re travelling east that’s easier that’s a bit shorter. So perhaps four days rather than five to adapt to a London New York journey but certainly five hours to adapt back again. The trouble is that the things that we come across in our daily lives differ in their ability to force us into a new time zone. So things like meal times or looking at your watch. These are signals to the body of what the clock time is. Your body doesn’t respond quickly so simply just adjusting your watch doesn’t actually make you feel that it’s midday. Simply having a meal set before you doesn’t make you feel that it’s dinner time or breakfast time. Those cues and clues that are in the environment take much longer to have an effect. So the fastest that people can adapt naturally without intervening in and I’ll come on to that. But the fastest is about one hour per day. So if you’re travelling on an eight hour time difference, it typically will take you eight days before everything is back to normal and you’re operating at a normal local time. And during the interim you will feel disorientated, you’ll feel hungry when you shouldn’t be, sleepy when you shouldn’t be, wide awake when you shouldn’t be, going to the toilet. All of the things that naturally happen in our bodies are really out of kilter. And that’s hence the expression jet lag; it’s the slow period.

Simon Calder [00:09:39] And just to help people visualise in lots of places eight hours away so down the western coast of the US, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver in Canada of course. In the opposite direction well pretty much everywhere Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore all eight hours away and of course very accessible on non-stop flights.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:09:59] And if you’re going on a two-week trip you know you’ve got eight days of jetlag one way. Maybe four days feeling just about right. And then eight days to adapt on your return.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:10:10] That’s why everybody fights on holiday, I suppose. [LAUGHS] But if you think about that all the people that are up the top of the plane who are high flying executives that are you know are on the redeye etc. The quality of the work that they must be doing when they get to their destination must be rubbish.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:10:26] Indeed. So this is the distinction between the fatigue and the effect of the journey itself. So being at the front of the plane definitely minimises that although that could be counterbalanced by some of the indulgences that they might be offered.

Simon Calder [00:10:48] What are you trying to tell us here, Richard? No alcohol, is that the short answer? [LAUGHS]

Dr Richard Dawood [00:10:54] If you want to arrive in better shape, you’re definitely better off avoiding alcohol and avoiding caffeine. So things that alter your sleep and wakefulness and interfere with those feelings, those are best avoided if you want to arrive in better shape.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:11:10] Can I ask you a question, because although I’m a doctor, I don’t know the answer to this. And I’ve been asked this loads of times before. Is one drink in the air the equivalent of three drinks on the ground? Or is that just nonsense?

Dr Richard Dawood [00:11:22] It’s probably not quite that much, but definitely alcohol has a more powerful effect. It’s the combined effect with the reduced oxygen pressure in the air that is the thing. So that all of those things conspire to make you feel in less good shape. And there are other things that you know, so the hangover effect that you might get from alcohol is enhanced in the air. You’re more dehydrated; it’s not so much that the cabin air is drying you out, it’s the fact that your fluid intake during a flight is usually much less. You don’t drink or eat in the same way as you do on the ground and the cabin air pressure forces fluid from your circulation into the soft tissues, so you feel a little bit headachey and dehydrated anyway. So once you start adding all of those confounding factors you get with something that’s a little bit confusing to the body. So yeah if your goal is to arrive in good shape that you would avoid some of those factors. But the thing that is no different whether in the front of the plane or the back of the plane is the jet lag effect itself, the displacement. Now there are some things that you can do to overcome that. And I’ll come onto those. But essentially that is class independent, Jet lag is a leveller.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:12:46] It’s like mosquitoes when you get there.

Simon Calder [00:12:49] I mean if I may, if you are in very high latitudes or very low latitudes, close to a pole, then you are going to be ticking off those time zones at a terrifying rate. So for example, you can get out to Alaska in about 12 hours and the time difference is ten hours. Similarly Southern Hemisphere. Anybody who’s ever done the South America Buenos Aires or Santiago to Sydney. That’s utterly disorientating because you’ve got a relatively quick travel time and a vast number of time zones that you’re passing through.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:13:23] So you want to take a really long holiday when you get there you don’t want to go for a quick trip?

Simon Calder [00:13:26] Yes, yes. Or and controversially I just put this out there. Maybe you just say that being a traveller is a bit like being a shift worker. You have to cope with these things and maybe I’ll actually spend my first few days in New York getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning local time and having a really interesting time exploring the markets which are starting up, having a look at museums as soon as they open and then having some lunch and going to bed!

Dr Richard Dawood [00:13:54] So that’s a very valid point, Simon. So one option is actually not to try to adapt at all. And that’s especially sensible if you are going for a very short time. So it will take you eight hours to adapt, but you’re only going for four days that it’s pointless there’s no value at all in trying to adapt. So what you should then really be doing is keeping your body on home time rather than local time. To the extent that you can, because you’ll then be in a much better position to adapt back again. And it also brings up the point that you’re making about what people get up to on arrival and their performance. When you’re suffering from jetlag, your performance is always going to be better when you’re conducting your meetings or your events at a time when you would be normally awake at home, and that’s it. So if you are advising somebody who is travelling to negotiate a trade deal perhaps or conduct some kind of high-level business activity, if you want to steal a march on your on the competition, you really want to make sure that you pick a time for the meeting not when it would be the middle of the night.

Simon Calder [00:15:19] Fantastic.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:15:19] But when actually you would normally be up and alert. And it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve had a sleep or not. Until your body has adapted properly, you’re better off just running things around your body clock rather than around the local time.

Simon Calder [00:15:37] Look. Let’s talk about insects and their capacity to keep you awake. And there’s nothing worse than not being able to sleep because you have either been bitten or you’re fearful of being bitten and this kind of extends more widely across the whole sphere of travel myths. I sometimes talk to schools and colleges about staying safe, and my tips are – be very careful on the roads. Don’t text while you’re crossing the road and if you can find an alternative for road travel, please do. Know how a riptide works and how to get out of one. And just avoid mosquitoes if you’re going anywhere tropical because not only are they maddening and they will destroy your sleep.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:16:22] It’s the sound that does it.

Simon Calder [00:16:25] Richard taught me this about 20 years ago. Just be absolutely obsessive about mosquitoes. That’s the main problem. But yeah otherwise you just maybe as a sort of backpacker thing you just make do.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:16:42] Don’t bring special pillows or anything like that, do you?

Simon Calder [00:16:45] No, no no. But that’s either disorganisation or just because generally things work out all right. Yes. Yeah.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:16:54] I have to own up to my special travel pillow. It’s memory foam, and it either helps me when I’m in that really uncomfortable airline seat, or it helps me get off to sleep when I arrive. I am sure it’s just conditioning. But that’s my lucky charm.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:17:17] What about technology, is that going to have a bad impact in terms of our jet lag? Say we’re flying to New York and our use of tech.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:17:27] Well for exactly the reason I explained about light exposure. That is why using a screen when you should be sleeping is so disruptive, you’re giving yourself a blast of potentially bright white light at exactly the time, and your body is most sensitive to it. So just as exposing yourself to light earlier or later in the day has a gentle effect. The most vigorous effect that you can get is actually to be exposed to light during the middle of the night because there is a crossover between when it brings all light cycle forwards or shifts it further backwards. And so yeah you can actually interfere with your adaptation. There’s a name for this. People call it light hygiene. So you need to be conscious of light hygiene, and it can be especially disruptive when you’re travelling to get that bright light exposure at the wrong time.

Simon Calder [00:18:33] Right. But this goes completely against what the airlines do and say, they are constantly trying to upgrade their screens, their in-flight entertainment and the boss of a very large and very successful airline basically just says right in economy just give people lots and lots of films, give them the occasional meal and they will cope with any length of journey. But you are saying, that’s the worst thing to do.

Dr Richard Dawood [00:18:57] Well, different goals. So it depends if your goal is rapid adaptation to a new time zone or an ability to while away the boredom and be insensitive to the discomfort. So that’s the issue, and each thing has its place. I mean you may not want to adapt very quickly to a new time zone if it’s only a short trip. So I think it just helps to understand how these things work and what the tradeoff is and what place they will have in the scheme of things.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:19:31] So what would your top tips to someone who’s going to go on a long haul flight be?

Simon Calder [00:19:39] First of all, decide if you’ve got to go on a long haul flight or whether you can actually split the journey into separate sections. I mean the most extreme flight you can have is one from the UK to Australia or more particularly New Zealand. And yes you can get on a plane in Heathrow and go to Los Angeles and go on to New Zealand. But what a complete waste, you’re flying over some fantastic places and so you could go back to the olden days when planes had to stop to refuel. So you could go to Athens and then to somewhere in the Gulf and then over to India and a couple of stops in India and then maybe Southeast Asia and make a real journey of it. But given that’s probably going to be more expensive and certainly is going to devour the most precious quantity of all, which is time. If you’re not going to do that, then my view, possibly counter to the medical world, is simply if you’re tired go to sleep. If you’re not, don’t try and force yourself.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:20:40] I like it. Pretty simple. What about you?

Dr Richard Dawood [00:20:43] Well I like that advice very much. I think the best thing to do in terms of arriving in better shape is to plan your journey so that you reduce sleep loss. I think trying to get a full night’s sleep on a short overnight flight is not possible and you will arrive in less good shape. So try and protect yourself from those kinds of phenomena. Try and arrive in good shape to the extent that you can be aware of your limitations during the period that you’re adapting and try and time all of the most critical events, the most enjoyable things, the most important meetings to a point where your body clock is on your side.

Simon Calder [00:21:28] And if I may also, other forms of transport are available and if you take Moscow to Vladivostok. You can fly it in about ten hours. Cuts across a ridiculous number of time zones because you’re going across northern Siberia quite a lot, but there is a very good train – the Trans-Siberian. It’s going to take you a week, but it is also going to give you a window on this amazing world. Also if I may, if you’ve got a time difference in about seven or eight hours if you’re on a train for a week you’re not even going to notice, are you doctor?

Dr Richard Dawood [00:22:00] Fantastic. I’m up for it Simon, let’s go. [LAUGHS]

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:22:05] You’ve obviously been pretty much everywhere across the globe I’d say. Where’s the weirdest place you’ve got your head down?

Simon Calder [00:22:12] Oh crikey. Well, there’s so many.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:22:14] That you’re allowed to say. [LAUGHS]

Simon Calder [00:22:18] I think in the deserts of Jordan sleeping out under the stars you can do that also in parts of Namibia if you’re careful about the local wildlife. I don’t know whether that’s taking us back to the prehistoric age when lots of people did that or whether they were actually in Richard’s cave. After that I suppose the worst sleep I’ve ever got has generally been at high altitudes trying to climb quite high mountains where I don’t know if it’s a combination of worry because you might fall off the next day, whether it’s the thin air, whether it’s the fact that you know you’ll be getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning and stumbling up this mountain to try to get to the top for sunrise. So I can never sleep then. But honestly, I think the most exciting thing about travel that people don’t really count is the fantastic dreams you have when you are in somewhere new and different, and that’s a really important direction to me.

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:23:20] So that’s the plus side of jetlag I guess. What about you, where’s your weirdest?

Dr Richard Dawood [00:23:24] My weirdest, ooh goodness. As a student, I hitched around South America, and we were lucky enough to be locked in in Machu Picchu overnight. And my travel companion had the idea that we could build ourselves some kind of bivouac under ferns and bracken and survive the night that way. We had absolutely no gear with us at all. It was a complete disaster, we were frozen to death, but it was totally fabulous

Simon Calder [00:24:00] And yours?

Dr Pixie McKenna [00:24:02] Similarly as a student, I hitched around Italy and ended up in Elba and didn’t want to pay for any accommodation I was with some friends of mine, and we slept on the beach, and I woke up with a dog peeing on my leg. [LAUGHS] So that was the end of that. Ah dear. Well look that was brilliant thank you so much, Simon and Richard. I hope you have great further great holidays and great sleeps in exotic places. It’s been great. Lots of tips there for everybody. That’s all from this episode of Sleep Matters from Dreams. If you want to hear more, go to, YouTube, or any of your usual podcast places. And if you enjoyed this podcast, we’d love it if you could subscribe and leave us a review.

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