No Time Zone Blues: Avoid Jet Lag With These Top Tips
Jet lag is one of the more surreal experiences a human being can undergo. You are dead tired, disoriented and probably unable to sleep. Furthermore, you become emotionally fragile and irritated with anyone and everyone.
Additionally, it renders you almost unable to enjoy your holiday or, if your travelling for work, do the work you are supposed to. Jet lag is also known as desynchronosis. I’ve even heard the unaffectionate term “travel hangover” thrown around.
The thing is, you shouldn’t just take this lying down. Unlike with hangovers, there are successful ways to fight back. It is possible to minimise jet lag’s detrimental effects. Let’s take a look at what jet lag is, its symptoms, and how to avoid it.
Remember – the most destructive effect of jet lag is the way it disturbs our sleep patterns. And not sleeping enough makes everything else in your life worse.
In a nutshell, jet lag happens when we travel (quickly) across time zones. The earth is divided into time zones – vertical blocks that run from east to west. This is a practical timekeeping system that is in sync with the earth’s rotation.
There are “rules” that apply:
This list of nasty symptoms could get longer, as one gets more specific. It is uncanny how many of these symptoms correspond with those of sleep deprivation. There is a good reason for this. Travelling across time zones disturbs our biochemistry in the same way that sleep deprivation does. Both of travelling and time zone shifts mess with our melatonin levels.
When we quickly travel across time zones, we disturb the 24-hour cycle of our bodies. This cycle is called the circadian rhythm. The effect of crossing time zones is that your day becomes unnaturally long or short. Our bodies take at least one full cycle to adjust to the new time zone. In the meantime, our sleep/wake cycles are messed up. As a result, we feel sleepy and awake at inappropriate times.
This is where the chemical melatonin comes in. Melatonin is a hormone that controls our sleep and wakefulness. The pineal gland secretes this hormone. Higher levels of melatonin cause sleepiness, and vice versa. Melatonin levels are regulated mainly by light exposure. Therefore, we feel sleepy at night (less exposure to light) and awake during the day (more exposure to light).
Our bodies take at least one cycle to adjust to the new time zone, so, until then, melatonin secretion is “out of step”. Temporarily, it turns us into zombies or involuntary night owls.
The best (and, thankfully, the easiest) way to treat jet lag is getting a good night’s sleep. It seems a bit obvious, but it is really that simple. Additionally, by going to sleep when it is dark and waking up at daybreak, you are adjusting your circadian clock to the new time zone.
You need a strategy, a multi-pronged approach. Use all or any tools at your disposal. There is no quick fix, and the process includes some preparation.
You don’t have to do it entirely in one go. Even moving your schedule an hour earlier or later can make for a “softer landing” in the new time zone. Consequently, adjusting to the new time zone will be far less disruptive.
To get an even more of a head start, you can further adapt to the new time zone while on the plane there.
Get something or some way to make you stay awake or fall asleep. I realise that this tactic might be frowned upon. After all, sedatives and stimulants disrupt our biochemistry even further. However, it seems to work for some, and I’ve tried it myself. (With success, may I add.)
The technique: artificially adjust your sleep/wake patterns to the new time zone when you arrive there. In other words, go to sleep at nighttime, whether it comes later or earlier. It doesn’t have to be chemical, you can use your falling-asleep routine, or use light exposure to great effect. Moreover, move the rest of your schedule to fit the new time zone.
You can also take naps if your day becomes too long, but keep them under 40 minutes. You don’t want to sleep long enough to go into the deep sleep phases. If you do, you either won’t be able to wake up, or you will make your jet lag worse.
You’re going to need more energy than usual to deal with the situation. To boot, if you’re hungry and thirsty, you will set off an unwanted chemical reaction. Your body will start to release stress hormones, which disrupt melatonin levels.
Whether you’re travelling for work or entertainment, an extra day or two is worth gold. During this time, you’ll be able to “find your feet”. Remember, for each time zone you cross, you need about a day to recover. There are, however, ways to speed this process up a bit, but not much.
You can also buy some extra time for travelling. If you break up your journey into shorter trips, it will buffer the effects of jet lag. Besides, this works really well when travelling from west to east.
The jury is still out as to the effectiveness of this technique, but it works for some. Take a melatonin supplement an hour or so before your new time zone’s bedtime. Remember that this will most likely work for one night only. (Your body will attempt to even out the extra melatonin rather quickly.)
Get as much info as possible about your accommodation beforehand. Check for anything that will disrupt your sleep. There could be a busy highway next to your room that the hotel website “neglected to” tell you about. On top of that, try to find out what sort of mattress the room has. Back pain and a stiff neck will not improve the effects of jet lag.
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