You arrive after an interminably long flight. Unfortunately you saved money by getting the cheapest ticket possible which meant you were assigned the middle seat of the center five on a 747. Your arms and legs are cramped and sore. Your eyes are heavy but you have arrived in China so you happily jaunt off to the Great Wall for a hike. While struggling up the endless stairs you suffer a massive heart attack. It’s called, in embassy speak: “Death by Peking Duck.”
While it sounds unbelievable, it does happen often enough for the embassy to give it such an unflattering name. The fact of the matter is it has nothing to do with indulging in a delicious fatty roast duck dinner on your first night and everything to do with the risk of long flights in coach. The way your legs bend impairs circulation which facilitates the formation of clots. Blood clots can break free and if the conditions are right can lodge in the heart or brain causing heart attacks or strokes. The risks increase in people who smoke, are overweight, have a history of clots or a family history of such problems. To reduce the risks, get up and walk the length of the cabin every hour or so, drink lots of water and avoid caffeine and booze – no matter how much you think you want it.
The risk of sitting-induced clots declines after a few days off the plane. But in the meantime you now have to deal with the ugly fact that your body and the world are suddenly completely out of synch. The fact is international travel by plane has introduced us to the wonders of jet lag. Back when it took two weeks or a month to cross the ocean we gradually got used to changes and naturally adjusted our circadian rhythm to match the new position of the sun. Not anymore. A trip to China typically places everything a full cycle off.
Methods for dealing with jet lag vary. Some people insist on having a few drinks and then sleeping through the whole flight. Others stay up all night before flying to try and knock themselves out on the plane. Still others insist on staying awake through the flight and then fighting to stay up as long as possible on the ground in country before calling it an early night. Finally, there are drugs on the market such as melatonin which are supposed to help reset the body clock by putting you to sleep.
I find the best way to deal with jet lag is to stay up late but not all night before the flight, sleep about 5 or 6 hours on the plane and then once you get up, stay up as long as possible in China. I still wake up very early for the first three or four days but it generally works and at least I am functional during the day when travelling or attending meetings.
Using melatonin works best in combination with other strategies like the above. About one hour before you want to go to sleep, take the pills. You should get better and deeper sleep. Make sure you are ready for bed, however, because once they start taking effect, there is little you can do to stay awake.
As for eating, you will probably not want to eat at the normal times. You may find you are not hungry at all around lunchtime but starving in the middle of the night. This is because the body gets used to eating at certain times. When the world turns around, your stomach takes a few days to catch up. Try eating lightly for the first few days until you get used to it.
Finally, expose yourself to sunlight. Nothing helps jetlag more than some good old Vitamin D. So remember comrades, walk the length of the plane, try to get some sleep and then get out in the sun. Safe travels!