“I think a major element of jetlag is psychological. Nobody ever tells me what time it is at home.” – David Attenborough
You fly across a few time zones, adjust your watch accordingly, and you expect your own internal body clock to do the same. A quick flick of a switch, or a magic pill, and – hey, presto! – we are ready to explore our new destination. We can eat, sleep and get up just like everybody else there. Wishful thinking!
As we all know, our body clocks are not so easily fixed, and sometimes it take days to adjust to the new light/dark rhythms. As a result, we suffer from the dreaded jet lag and feel wretched for the first few days of our holiday or business trip. For example, with a west to east flight from San Francisco to Rome it may take you up to six days to get over the jet lag.
The reason is that there seem to be ‘molecular brakes,’ which prevent your internal clock from adjusting rapidly to the new dark/light cycle (aka your circadian rhythms). Mice can do this very quickly but humans cannot. Researchers are looking at ways that we could apply these molecular brakes to our body clocks. Once that is discovered, we should be able to face a long-haul flight with confidence and relax.
These advances in science will help treat many mental illnesses that are caused by internal clocks not working properly. Schizophrenia and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are two that spring to mind.
Fortunately for us, there are several things we can do to reduce the effects of jet lag. Here are six practical ways to deal with it.
1. Plan ahead
When booking a long-haul flight, choose your departure time carefully if you are given a choice. Opting for an overnight flight means that you can sleep more easily and your arrival time in the afternoon or morning will make it easier for your body clock to adjust.
Another good idea is to save up your frequent flier miles and book first class. The extra comfort of fully reclining seats will help you sleep better.
2. Go to bed earlier or later before you leave
Heading east? Start going to bed just half an hour or an hour earlier for four or more nights before you leave. You are helping your body clock to get used to the new time zone before leaving. If you are heading west, try going to bed later and later.
3. Adjust your watch when you leave
Most airlines tell you to change your watch when you arrive. A helpful suggestion is to actually do that when you leave. In this way, you are making mental adjustments and thinking about what is happening at your destination and what the routine will be when you arrive.
4. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water during the flight
Because the cabin is pressurized, the humidity levels are very low. As our bodies are mostly made of water, dehydration in this atmosphere is a risk. The solution is to drink plenty of water before, during and after the flight. Avoid tea, coffee and alcohol as they are diuretics and will only worsen dehydration, which can leave you feeling weak, nauseous, shaky and confused. Now you know why pilots have to drink so much water!
Don’t forget to get as much movement as you can during the flight. I know there is not much room, but an aisle seat can really help here as you can stretch your legs and go for a little walk without disturbing anyone.
5. Meds may help
Consider taking a sleeping aid if you are comfortable with it and if you normally take one. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when you are eastbound, it helps you to feel more alert on the first few days, thus alleviating the effects of jet lag. Other people swear by melatonin, which is a natural hormone produced by the body to regulate your sleep-wake patterns. Try taking it for a few nights before you leave. It seems to help the body clock adjust when you get to your destination.
6. Get some sunlight if you can
On arrival, exposure to sunlight (weather and time zones permitting) will help you adjust to the new time. Getting out and doing things helps as well, so resist the urge to lock yourself up in your hotel room and fall asleep immediately, if you can. I made this mistake when I arrived in Los Angeles after a flight from Europe. It took me ages to adjust my body clock!
Try some light exercise too. A few stretching routines can really get your joints moving again. It also helps your mood. When it comes to eating, try to follow the normal mealtimes where you are, although that may mean a snack at a very strange time! Snoozing is all right too but try to avoid a long sleep until it is bedtime in your new location.
One thing to consider, if you really suffer from jet lag, is to fly north or south on the same meridian. No time zones to worry about and you only get tired from the journey. Unfortunately, there’s a more limited range of destinations, though!
Featured photo credit: Jet lag/gavdana via flickr.com