Should You Ever Take a Red-Eye?
Why you might think twice about pulling a high-altitude all-nighter.
You’re making travel plans to fly from LAX to JFK for an early-morning Tuesday meeting. The options: clear your crowded Outlook calendar and take-off Monday afternoon, or power through and book the red-eye. Which do you choose?
If sleep experts have anything to say about it, you’ll get your shut-eye on the ground. Even for the most resilient work-day warrior, a red-eye flight disrupts your sleep cycle, wreaking havoc on your health and, according to a recent study, your looks.
Whether you’re flying West to East or vice versa, your body naturally deals with the time difference by resetting its internal clock. But it’s the adaptation period — what we call jet lag — that throws you out of whack. Adrenalin may keep you going during shorter trips, says Matthew Mingrone, a San Francisco-based sleep specialist, but you’re still building up “sleep debt,” which will take its toll once you’re back in your natural time zone.
When traveling for business, taking a red-eye can defeat the trip’s purpose. Research increasingly shows that sleep deprivation negatively affects problem solving skills, innovative thinking and alertness — and may even make you less ethical. (In a recent study, sleep-deprived subjects exhibited rudeness, inappropriate responses and, oddly, attempts to take more money than they earned).
Subjects who didn’t get a full night’s sleep were consistently perceived as less attractive than when they’d slept soundly through the night.
Still not convinced? Researchers in Sweden found that subjects who didn’t get a full night’s sleep were consistently perceived as less attractive than when they’d slept soundly through the night. And while one bleary-eyed trip won’t have long-term effects, studies increasingly connect chronic sleep deprivation with weight gain, as well as medical problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
When a red-eye is your only option, try to ease your pain. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. If you’re arriving in the evening, don’t sleep at all on the flight. But if you’re landing in the morning, do your best to maximize your sleep. Noise-canceling headphones, sleep masks and natural sleep-aids like melatonin (or prescription meds) can help — and, as seductive as a sleep-inducing cocktail always sounds, it’s best to stay away from alcohol before, during and after the flight.
Upon landing, Mingrone says the best way to speed up the acclimation process is to get as much natural light as possible at strategic times of day. If you’re flying West, trick your body into thinking it’s not bedtime yet by going outside later in the afternoon. For East-bound flights, set your biological clock forward by soaking up sunlight in the morning, which makes your body think you’re running out of daylight.
Photography by Phillip Toledano/trunkarchive.com