Thursday, May 29, 2008

Overcoming Jet Lag

Every May on the last Thursday of the month, I lecture to European Hospital CEOs in Geneva. After a full day of teaching, networking, and group meals, I have two choices - fly back to Boston on a Friday, or travel to some European city for the weekend, then fly back on Sunday. For the past few years, I've done the European weekend option, visiting Paris, Prague, Rome, and Vienna/Saltzburg. This year, I'll be in Istanbul for the weekend and my experiences there will be the subject of my blog tomorrow (no cool technology blog this week).

My schedule this week will be Boston to Paris to Geneva to Lausanne to Geneva to Zurich to Istanbul to London to Boston in 4 days with 6 to 7 hour time changes.

Traveling in economy class, wedged in a middle seat, traveling from point to point just in time for my lecture responsibilities, how do stay coherent? Overcoming jet lag and enjoying foreign travel requires a few simple steps

1. Avoid all caffeine and alcohol - they truly do not help. Caffeine leads to more fatigue and alcohol leads to interrupted sleep. I have similar feelings about taking medications on airplanes like ambien, benadryl etc for sleep. They just make you groggy.

2. Wherever in the world you arrive, push through to the time you would normally go to sleep in that country. Never take naps - that will prevent your body from adapting. If you go to be at 10pm each night at home, go to bed at 10pm local time on the first day you arrive at your destination, no matter how painful it is to stay awake that first day. By the second day, you'll be adapted.

3. Expose yourself to sunlight as much as possible (with appropriate sunscreen to avoid too much UV). Rising with the dawn and staying outdoors will help your body rapidly adjust to the new time zone.

4. Avoid heavy, fatty meals. Several light meals make adaption easier. To the extent possible try to eat similar foods to your diet at home. Traveling as a vegan is sometimes challenging, so I eat vegetarian while traveling. Eating light salads, fresh breads, and soups keeps my energy up without weighing me down.

5. Stay hydrated. I drink 1-2 liters a day while traveling, especially when I'm wandering through a city on foot. I use a Platypus Hydration bladder in a small backpack as I'm walking the streets of Europe.

6. Avoid pre-packaged tours. While traveling, I like to experience a country by walking among the locals, visiting their shops and restaurants, and understanding the terrain between points of interest instead of crowding on a bus to sprint from point of interest to point of interest, then eating an Americanized meal of rubber chicken at a roadside tourist diner. Pre-package tours tend maximize crowds and minimize walking, making you feel more fatigued.

7. Do something out of the box. While in Japan, I climbed Mt. Fuji at dawn on the first day of the climbing season. While in Salzburg, I hiked up the Untersberg, where the Sound of Music was filmed ("the hills are alive...") to enjoy the wildflowers. In Istanbul, I've found a master flute maker who creates and plays the Turkish Ney. The Japanese flute is said to be the most challenging instrument to play with the Ney a close second. I've arranged to purchase one of his flutes and take lessons. Luckily, I've also found a Ney master in Boston so I can continue the instruction when I return. Doing something that's not in any tourist guide will give me a reason to want to get out of bed in the morning and will create a lifelong memorable experience.

8. Exercise. Rather than consider caffeine or other stimulants, get moving. Walk the city and you'll feel more invigorated throughout the day. Generally I walk 15-20 miles a day while I'm touring a city.

9. Do something intellectual. While in Istanbul, I've arranged to have lunch with a Professor of Ottoman History and we'll walk the Sultanahmet area (Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia) reflecting on the history of old Constantinople. This will keep my brain engaged so I'm not just wading through a sea of tourists.

10. Go with the flow. From the moment I land in Turkey at 1pm on Friday to the moment I leave at 1pm on Sunday, I have no schedule and no plans other than to call the cell phone numbers of the Ney maker and Ottoman Professor to arrange meetings. This means that I can explore Istanbul 20 hours a day without any concern of the next tour bus to catch. I can eat when and where I find something interesting. I can take side trips I would have never been able to plan. The end result is a stress free unique experience.

I may not have WiFi access in Istanbul, so tomorrow's blog entry may have to wait until Sunday night, but I'll be on Blackberry if you need me.


Jeremy said...

I saw this interesting article the other day on overcoming jet lag. I thought you may be interested.

Susan Carr said...

I spent time in Istanbul in March, in transit to a patient-safety conference in Antalya (700 attendees from 63 countries). I recommend spending time near or on the water--the Galata Bridge is a colorful, stimulating city-within-a city. I also enjoyed the modern art museum in Tophane (, with good food & view of the Bosphorus from its restaurant. Also the Rustem Pasa mosque, for its perch above the bazaar. I could go on and on... I hope you enjoy a safe and wonderful trip.

dtet said...
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dtet said...

I completely agree and understand why touring a city on your own is better than sitting through a conducted (pre-packaged) tour! I had some cousins taking a packaged tour of Manhattan last week and they were shown two big points of interest, namely, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Having lived in NYC for sometime, I offered to show them the "real" deal. This meant walking from the park to times square to south street sea port, eating road side NY style pizza, riding the subway, talking about the history behind famous and not-so-famous buildings. We explored the city while enjoying the sights and sounds of it. In the end, my cousins were happy-tired (the kind where you wake up the next morning feeling like you made a wise investment of time, money and physical strain) and not frustrated-tired (the kind where you wake up the following morning feeling like you wasted time, money and are exhausted from a tour that showed you what you had already seen on google images when you searched on the name of a city).

Knarlydog said...

Of your many trips, this one has me quite envious. Istanbul is a special place. Your lunch with the Ottoman professor sounds exciting. Curious what his thought are on the significance of Ataturk role transitioning Turkey out of the Ottoman Empire and into the Republic

John Halamka said...

Folks - thanks for your comments. I've posted a followup with the details of my time in Turkey called "Dispatch from Istanbul"