In addition to the environment, other factors which affect the pilots’ fatigue and stress accumulation, and cognitive thought processing abilities, are nutrition, dehydration, hypoxia and recovery. Fortunately, unlike the environment, all of these are controllable by the pilot.
The two most important factors with respect to nutrition are a balanced diet and appropriate blood sugar levels.
Much is written about balanced diets, typically concentrating on 70 to 80% fruit and vegetables and the balance in protein and other carbohydrates. Clearly this is in conflict with what a lot of Australians eat. However, being mindful of the need for high levels of fruit and vegetables, and attempting to eat high levels, will help your energy levels through the vitamins and minerals they supply. You should also listen to your body. Take note of what you have eaten in the 24 hours prior to a period of low energy – or high energy. See if a pattern can be detected after a while.
A lot of people are unaware that, for them, too much wheat, yeast or lactose can produce fatigue. Simple sugar foods, soft drinks, tea, coffee, and alcohol may provide short term energy bursts but are invariably followed by relapses. Try a week of high concentrations of fruit and vegetables or the longer lasting easier digestible vegetable juice and see if you feel more energised. Of course, you can go to a naturopath and get tested for food allergies or preferred foods for your body. Just don’t get too hung up on the results though – just use it as a guide to your own experimentation.
At a contest try to maintain your normal diet in spite of the difficulties. In particular avoid an increased consumption of fats, sugars, starch and breads. Try to opt for a greater percentage of Asian foods if eating out a lot whilst away. These have higher veg to protein and fat contents.
Maintaining an appropriate range of blood sugar level is very important. Blood sugar is the fuel for the brain. Low levels produce slower thinking, reduced focus and concentration, with subsequent indecision, bad decisions, poor co-ordination, narrowing of vision and can lead to accidents.
After eating a balanced meal blood sugar levels will rise with digestion and then fall more slowly over the next two to three hours if the foods are balanced. However, if high sugar and carbohydrates are consumed the levels will rise very quickly to an excessive level and fall very quickly resulting in a rapid decline in brain power and a feeling of lethargy. Therefore, ensure you eat a proper lunch either before flight. A salmon, tuna or chicken salad would be ideal. If you have to take it with you ensure a lot of salad compared to the bread. It is better to make a pita bread wrap. I also take 2 bananas and 1 or 2 apples depending on the expected duration of the flight. The salads or wraps should be a reasonable mix of food and allow prolonged control of blood sugar levels. The bananas are a slow complex sugar as well as vitamins etc., and also release into the blood over a relatively long period. The apples are a faster complex sugar – best kept for final glide or escaping from an energetic grovel. Minimise the nuts and dried fruit as they will contain a lot of sugar and fat. Breakfast bars are ok if you look to the low sugar and don’t make a habit of it. Lollies are bad and to keep eating them and/or soft drinks will give you hits with progressively bigger downers resulting in fatigue and reduced mental performance particularly in the heat.