Earlier this year, Qantas, Australia’s largest air carrier, announced it was testing the world’s longest flight—a 19-hour, non-stop journey from New York to Sydney. The company is also exploring a similar “ultra-long-haul,” as it’s dubbed these routes, between London and Sydney. But 19 hours on a plane can’t be good for you, right?
“The main problems on a long flight relate to disturbing your body’s normal circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Margaret Allman-Farinelli of the University of Sydney.
Crossing all of those time zones messes with your hormone levels, which is a scientific way of explaining why you feel like crap upon arrival. But it turns out you can trick your body into hitting the ground running. To a point. The folks at Qantas teamed up with researchers from Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre—experts in engineering, physics, endocrinology, and immunology—to devise a holistic approach to long-haul travel. It makes sense that Qantas would get serious about the science of long-haul travel, as the customer base for these flights is largely business travelers. “Billions of dollars are lost as a consequence of jet lag,” Dr. Allman-Farinelli says.
As a result of the research, Qantas adjusted the levels of its on-board lighting to encourage sleep and also changed the meal schedule to match the time zone of your destination. To see how the research can improve shorter—but still extremely long—flights, we got the good doctor on the phone, along with Phil Capps, Qantas’s head of product strategy and development, to break down some dos and don’ts for long flights. They also bravely answered our No. 1 question about going No. 2.
1. Don’t get drunk.
We know the temptation. Twelve hours? More like 12 tiny, cold bottles of Sutter Home red while you watch Captain Marvel again. But alcohol is a “dehydrating element,” says Dr. Allman-Farinelli. “Eight red wines is not what you need.” Limit yourself to one or two, she says. Also: Carbonation is a no-no, unless you enjoy feeling bloated. Pro-tip on hydration: Fly on The Dreamliner. The cabin is pressurized to make it feel like you’re flying at a lower altitude, which reduces headache and fatigue, and the air purification system is the same kind used in hospital operating rooms.
2. Speaking of hydration, kombucha is not a miracle cure.
“Kombucha does not have any mystical properties for flight that we’ve been able to see,” Dr. Allman-Farinelli says. “Water will give you the same benefit.” But if you’re feeling The ‘Booch, that’s cool. Just read the label first. “Provided it doesn’t have a large amount of sugar—and you like the taste—go ahead and have it.”
3. Avoid spicy foods before night-night.
No heavy cream, either. Celebrity chef Neil Perry worked with Qantas on its menus, offering seared Cone Bay barramundi with herb garlic potatoes and broccolini. Whatever you’re eating, just keep it simple: A little protein, a little carbohydrate. “Together that will rapidly increase the level of insulin in your system,” Dr. Allman-Farinelli says, “which can increase the levels of tryptophan in the brain and serotonin that can induce sleep.”
4. Insist on hot sauce with breakfast.
Coffee, cayenne pepper—any stimulant to kick-start the metabolism and suppress melatonin will get you combat-ready.
5. Hit the gym before your flight.
This feels obvious, but now it’s doctor recommended: “Don’t arrive at the airport stressed out. Get a few good nights worth of sleep before you go and include some physical activity,” she says.
6. Eat like you’re already on foreign soil. Sleep like it, too.
It doesn’t matter what time it is where you get onboard. Adjust your watch—and your body—immediately to your destination. If you can, Qantas’s Phil Capps recommends starting that prep days in advance: “Go to bed a half-hour earlier every night so that by the time you leave, you’ve already started your body clock change.”
7. Yeah, OK. But what’s a regular guy gotta do to get regular?
After a long flight, your personal septic tank can get seriously backed up. Is the cabin pressure strangling your intestines? “It all ties in with the circadian rhythms,” Dr. Allman-Farinelli says. “When we go to bed, melatonin secretion is starting to make us go to bed, and movements of the bowel is suppressed.” She suggests not eating a lot of fiber on board. “But as soon as you get to the other end”—no pun intended—“do up the whole grains and the fruit and vegetables.”
8. No matter what, don’t stress.
Ever find yourself walking up and down the aisle at night, wondering how it’s possible that you’re the only one on this dang flight who can’t sleep? Don’t punish yourself. Capps suggests looking at this as a positive thing. “You’re moving! You’re helping to get your blood moving, you’re helping your lymph nodes. Don’t be anxious about it. Your body will do what your body will do. Incorporate a lot of these tips and they will ensure that you’re not making yourself feel any worse. Ideally you might feel even better.”
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