If you have traveled long distances across several time zones in a short amount of time, you have likely experienced the symptoms of jet lag. Jet lag, also known as jet lag disorder is caused by your body adjusting to a different time zone than what you were originally used to. When crossing multiple time zones, you put your normal sleep cycle out of sync. The change in time zone and sunlight throws off the rhythm of your body and mind. This affects your sleep patterns, eating habits and digestion, among other things. The body needs a few days to adapt to the new time zone after landing. The number of days depends on the distance you have traveled.
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Fortunately it is possible to limit the extent of its effect on your body. By following some simple methods you can reduce the severity of jet lag.
What Causes Jet Lag?
When you travel for long hours trans-Meridian, your body’s internal clock goes haywire. It needs time to adjust to the new time zone. Basically, there is a disconnect between the external environment and the internal functioning. Both must be aligned for you to resume your normal routine.
Your internal clock, also called the circadian rhythm, works in tandem with your external physical environment. It revolves around the sunlight and the darkness of your time zone. They are cues for your body to wake up and fall asleep. Your brain decides whether it’s the time to be awake according to the level of sunlight outside. Likewise, at night, the brain determines it’s time to fall asleep. This is why it’s ideal to keep your room dark and limit digital screen use at night. Cell phones, tablets and TV screens emit lights that induce wakefulness. These bright emissions confuse your brain and play havoc with your sleep cycle.
The circadian rhythm, when thrown into disorder, makes you feel lethargic and exhausted. This also disrupts your diet and digestion. When you are in a different time zone, your body needs time to adapt to the new daylight patterns. You might feel groggy during the day and alert at night.
The number of days jet lag lasts depends on the journey you take and the direction you travel. Also, the number of time zones you cross is a factor. It is less prominent when you travel westward and more significant when you travel towards the east. This is because when you travel the eastward, you lose part of your day. It then becomes harder for your body’s circadian rhythm to become synchronized to a new time zone. When you fly westwards, you add hours which allows your body more time to adjust.
A single time zone may requires only a day or so to adjust to the new external environment. It takes the body a few days acclimate to multiple time zone changes. If you are crossing six time zones, it might take about 3-4 days for your body to adjust. For flights covering more than 8 time zones, the disruption in sleep cycle can stretch to a full week.
Apart from distant travels, there is another other kind of jet lag called the social jet lag. This experienced most by individuals we know as night owls. They are are most alert at night but sleepy during the day. For these individuals, performing mental and physical tasks in the morning is problematic.
This is also experienced by people suffering from delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). Those who suffer from this disorder struggle to keep their body clocks in sync with the social time. It’s the reason they rarely reach work on time but are first in line at the coffee machine.
Symptoms of Jet Lag
The symptoms of jet lag differ according to the journey you take. If you travel for long hours and cross more time zones, the symptoms are more severe. Your body clock is set to the original time and it takes considerably more days to recover.
Apart from the hours traveled and time zones traversed, age is also a factor with jet lag severity. For younger people, it might not be that difficult to adjust to new schedules. Early in life, your circadian rhythm adapts and adjusts more quickly. However, for older people, it becomes more difficult to acclimate to a new time zone. Symptoms pronounce themselves more strongly and subside much slower.
Your body will experience the following symptoms which can indicate whether you have jet lag or not:
- Sleep Disorder: Your body is used to going bed and rising in a specific time zone. Environment changes alter your routine and through off proper sleep signals. Hence, the most prominent symptom of jet lag is sleep-wake cycle disorder.
- Stress and Headaches: Crossing time zones can leave your brain a bit disoriented. This confusion can lead to acute stress and headaches. Moreover, the longer you remain in the airplane, the more exposed you are to a pressurized cabin. This causes oxygen levels in your blood to lower. Also, extreme discomfort and headaches can result from this exposure.
- Fatigue and Exhaustion: The farther you travel, the more heaviness and fatigue you’ll experience. This causes functionary distortion and inability to concentrate and focus.
- Constipation and diarrhea, among other digestive conditions.
- Change in eating routine and difficulty following a diet; including loss of appetite.
Overall, jet lag makes you feel highly disoriented. It causes difficulty performing even the most basic mental or physical tasks. Jet lag leaves you irritated, exhausted and prone to dozing off during the daytime. Yet, sleep eludes you at night.
How to Prevent Jet Lag
While it takes a while to recover from jet lag, there are precautions measures you can take before flying. These activities can minimize the effects of jet lag and help you recover faster.
Things to Do Before Flying
- Focus on Your Fitness: Before going on that long trip, try and squeeze in some time to workout. Combined with proper diet and plenty of rest, your body will be more fit and better prepared for your trip. The more in the shape your body is, the lesser jet lag will hit you.
- Simulate Your New Zone: Try adjusting your body to the time schedule of your destination a few weeks before leaving. If you are traveling East, Go to sleep earlier to adjust to reduced daylight. If you are traveling west, move your bedtime later to account for the increased hours.
- Sleep Well the Night Before: This ensure that you get plenty of rest so you are fresh and alert for your flight. Lack of sleep before flying makes it harder for your body to cope with jet lag.
- Avoid Arriving at Night: While booking your flight, try to choose one that lands in the daytime. This will help both your body and brain stay alert and prepared. Since the sun will be out, it will be easier to adjust. This will also help reduce the drastic effects on your sleep cycle.
- Break-Up Your Trip: traveling 10 or more time zones is a shock to your system. Try to break your trip up by choosing a layover in between for a day or two. This helps reduce the dramatic impact of the long-distance travel. This way, you’ll be better prepared to adjust to the new time zone when you land in your destination.
Things to Do on the Day of Your Journey
- Avoid the Bar: It may seem tempting to have just one drink before leaving for your trip; or even at the airport bar. But, alcohol before boarding your plane is not a good idea. Having a drink before your flight can cause dehydration. You should also refrain from alcohol the night before your journey. Drinking before can have a negative impact on the quality of your sleep.
Avoid Caffeine: Along with alcohol, you should also refrain from consuming caffeine. Drinks like coffee, energy drinks or tea, contain caffeine which can increase anxiety levels.They can also disrupt a peaceful sleep cycle.
- Ensure You’re Comfortable: Wear comfortable attire on your flight. This includes shoes as well as clothing. If you are easily distracted by sounds and lights, you should also carry earplugs and eye masks to help you rest better.
- Don’t Take On Unnecessary Stress: It’s normal to be a bit worried about last-minute travel mishaps. Being prepared in advance can help alleviate this. Ensure that you are all packed the night before. Leave for the airport well in advance to avoid the rush. The less stress you take before flying, the better your journey will be.
- Stay Hydrated: It’s important to have a constant intake of water to keep yourself hydrated. This helps your body to function properly and combat jet lag symptoms. Drink water throughout the day to avoid dehydration.
- Change the Time on Your Watch: The moment you board your plane, change your watch to match the time zone of your new destination. This will prepare yourself psychologically to adapt to the schedule of the new place.
- Keep Moving Around: When strapped into your seat for long periods of time you’re bound to experience soreness and muscle aches due to lack of any movement. Every couple of hours or so, get up and take a walk down the aisle. If that’s uncomfortable, you can perform simple stretching exercises in your seat. This helps maintain proper blood flow and avoid aches and pain after you land.
- Don’t Fall Asleep for Long: Avoid long periods of sleep on your flight. Try to take short, periodic naps of not more than half an hour. These brief periods of rest will give your mind and body the rest it needs.
Things to Do after Landing
- Soak in the Sun: After you land, try to move around in the sunlight for a few hours to help become adapt to your new environment. It will also reduce the production of sleep-inducing melatonin. Your body is used to the faster your body is exposed to sunlight, the sooner it will acclimate to its new sleep schedule. A long flight may also leave you feeling rather stiff. Try stretching out a bit to resume the blood flow after sitting in the flight for so long.
- Work in Tandem with the Locals: Make your body clock used to the social time of the new surroundings. Match your routine with that of your peers or colleagues. Have your meals at a time when the locals do and go to bed when it’s night. For instance, if you land at 1:00 PM according to your new time zone, forget about breakfast and eat lunch instead. Don’t fight your new time schedule, embrace it and your body will adapt much faster.
- Sleep Medication: Generally it’s not recommended to take sleeping pills to force your body to fall asleep. However, doctor prescribed mild sedatives can help you wind down the first few nights. For your health and safety, don’t rely on them as a long term solution.
- Try Melatonin: Melatonin that is produced in your body helps keep your circadian rhythm stay in sync. A low level melatonin supplement a couple of hours before going to sleep has been proven effective in battling jet lag. After giving the body time to absorb it, try sleeping for at least 8 hours. A dose as low as 0.5 mg is enough to treat jet lag.
- Natural Light Therapy: If you are landing at night, it becomes harder for your body to initiate its recovery process from jet lag. Sunlight helps in regulating the circadian rhythms. Therefore, consider light therapy by carrying portable devices like lamps and visors. Choose units that emit a bright beam without causing harm to your eyes. When you travel towards the west, it can be used in the night and when in the east, use in the morning to help your body adjust its internal clock.
- Do consult with a specialist first since these devices can sometimes cause more harm than good. If used improperly, they may guide your body’s internal clock in the opposite direction and disrupt jet lag recovery. Some devices can also emit too bright a light that can cause visual harm.
- Avoid Heavy Meals: After arriving at your destination, avoid having a heavy meal right after you have landing or before going to bed. This can disrupt getting a good night’s sleep.
How to Recover
While there are no specific medications to recover from jet lag there are a few methods to get over jet lag.
- As it’s said, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. Stick to the local schedule of eating and working. Eat along with others and avoid any impulsive out-of-routine meals.
Make sure your room is totally dark before sleeping. This allows your body to settle down and secrete the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.
- Get out in the sunlight during the day as much as possible. This will allow your circadian rhythm adjust itself to your new environment.
- Avoid large amounts of caffeine and alcohol, especially before bedtime.
- Don’t underestimate the power of being comfortable. The body needs to be completely relaxed for it to be able to fall asleep. To make yourself comfortable, don’t hesitate to carry your own pillows and sheets that can create a cozy environment. Use ear plugs and a sleep mask to reduce distractions and fall asleep faster.
- If you have traveled far to the east, wear sunglasses in the morning to avoid bright sunlight. while allowing more sunlight later in the afternoon. This will help your body adjust faster to the new environment.
- To manage your symptoms and recover faster from jet lag, you can also combine melatonin and natural light therapy.
If you are traveling for more than 8-10 hours, across multiple time zones, you are bound to experience the symptoms of jet lag. How long they lasts depends on the kind of precautions you took before your trip. Remember, age and any previous medical conditions also play a role in determining jet lag severity.
Jet lag is a temporary condition which will go away after a few days. Once your circadian rhythm is in sync, you will feel more like yourself. Simple measures can make it disappear quicker. Avoid caffeine or alcohol and drink plenty of water. This will help your body stay properly hydrated.
Some sleep medications can also help with jet lag recovery. Use only if absolutely necessary and prescribed by a doctor. Other remedies like natural light therapy, monitoring the sunlight exposure and melatonin supplements are safer jet lag remedies.