We have all had that feeling. You set out on an international trip full of energy, and an hour after you arrive, you feel as if you are dying of exhaustion. For some, it can almost feel like a hangover. And while that might be the case if you were drinking at 35,000 feet, you could feel sore and tired even if you skipped the wine. These are the lingering effects of jet lag.
Why Does Jet Lag Happen?
It’s all a part of international air travel. You take off from Berlin and head towards New York. You board the flight at 10 in the morning. You should arrive after eight hours at six in the evening (Berlin time). But New York is six hours behind Berlin, so you arrive at noon (New York time).
You feel dead tired, but bedtime is a good nine hours away. Your body is still on Berlin time. It feels ready for bed in the early afternoon, and wants to wake up at midnight. This effect can last for days until your body adjusts. It’s unsettling, and can cause you to miss out on a lot of your vacation.
Note that jet lag only happens when you travel east or west. North-south flights such as Paris to Johannesburg do not cause jet lag because the time shift is not enough.
Though usually associated with international travel, it also happens during cross-country flights in the USA (Miami to Phoenix, for example). Not many countries are large enough to cause jet lag in domestic flights.
Though essentially a passive malaise that passes within 48 hours, jet lag can prove to be more severe for a few. Daytime sleepiness is a common side effect, and causes a reduction in alertness. An accident of some sort, such as a slip or fall, is not out of the question. In these cases, a travel medical insurance plan can help you immeasurably. It can provide financial protection for covered medical expenses while you’re abroad.
How Can You Cope with Jet Lag?
Jet lag is a complex psycho-physiological phenomenon. It affects the sleep-wake cycle, blood pressure, digestion, attention span, and myriad other bodily processes. But it is not impossible to conquer.
We have divided our advice into two halves. The first half tells you what you can do right now to get some relief. The latter half tells you what you must do in the future to ensure it never happens again.
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What to Do When Suffering from Jet Lag
Avoid Overexposure to Blue Light
LED light produces two types of hues – yellow at about 4,000 Kelvin and fluorescent blue at 6,500 Kelvin. The latter signals the brain to stay awake, because it mimics sunlight.
Almost every device we use emits LED light – tablets, laptops, smartphones, and even reading lamps.
Thankfully, most portable devices support reading mode and color temperature control. Turn it down and give your eyes rest. Lack of blue light signals to your nervous system that it is time to go to sleep.
Of course, if you want to stay awake on your arrival, do the opposite. Lots of blue light can help you stay awake and attentive.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland after sunset. It prepares the body for sleep.
Traveling across time zones causes the pineal gland to go haywire. It wants to secrete melatonin after a 24-hour gap, only to find that you are far away from bedtime.
Melatonin supplements are the only approved medication for fighting jet lag. Note that while it is easily available in many countries, the UK has banned it. Please check the laws of your local jurisdiction, and always consult your doctor before taking a new supplement.
The good news is some foods are very high in natural melatonin and help elevate it. These include corn, asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, nuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, mustard seeds, and cherries.
Set Your Watch
At the start of a long flight, change the time on your watch or phone to the local time of your destination. During the flight, keep referring to destination time. This gives your mind a few hours to rectify its functioning. The earlier you start adjusting to the time change, the quicker your body can recover from it.
When you arrive at your destination, you have a choice: You can either follow your old sleep-wake cycle and take a week to adapt, or power through it over a 48-hour period.
The latter is infinitely better for productivity. The most difficult thing to do is adjust to the local bedtime. If it’s time for sleep, you could, of course, wander around the hotel and be at a pub until the wee hours of the morning, but this is going to make recovery that much more difficult.
Moderate Caffeine and Alcohol
The former keeps you awake, and the latter makes you drowsy. No wonder they are the favorite go-to substances for international travelers.
Unfortunately, the advantages last no more than a couple of hours. The downsides last several days.
Stimulants and depressants are the worst enemies of jet lag. When your central nervous system is trying to reorganize itself, adding stimulants or depressants can severely strain your cognitive abilities.
Try and abstain as much as possible. Nothing is wrong with a little bit of indulgence, but don’t consume too much.
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Go for a Walk and Take a Bath
Walking is a therapeutic form of exercise. If can help calm you down so you feel less stressed, but doesn’t require the energy of running or going to the gym. The mental tranquility provided by some easy exercise can make it easier for you to fall asleep.
Another way to wind down is by taking a long, hot bath. A relaxing bath is a wonderful way to put the body in a state of restfulness.
How to Avoid Jet Lag in the First Place
Start Preparing Before You Depart
If you are susceptible to jet lag, you can counter the effects if you start preparing early. The best way is to change your sleep schedule slowly. If you are going from Berlin to New York, begin shifting your sleep hours a little bit each day starting a week prior to departure.
On the morning of the flight, get up as late as possible. Take a lot of rest during the flight so that when you emerge into New York sunshine, you are fully rested.
If you are going to arrive very close to bedtime, do the opposite. Try not to rest too much and keep awake by reading a book or watching in-flight entertainment. Mild sleep deprivation the day before you depart can also help. Once you arrive, take a cab to your hotel and fall asleep after a quick shower and meal.
Improve Your Fitness
It is a proven fact that those who are physically fit suffer less from jet lag. If you are out of shape and have a co-morbidity or two (high blood pressure, for example), you are more likely to feel the effects of jet lag.
The reason is very simple. Travel requires effort. You’re forced to sit in an uncomfortable position for many hours, eating food you do not like, in close proximity to a lot of strangers. Even for seasoned travelers, long-haul flights can be stressful to the body.
Those who are more fit tend to cope more easily with physical and mental stress. Therefore, by improving your fitness, you can mitigate the effects of jet lag and recover more quickly.
At The End of The Day… (pun not intended)
Long-distance international air travel is still a relatively new activity, and there is still much to uncover about the science of jet lag. Long-haul aircraft manufacturers are continuously working to reduce its effects through aircraft design.
For instance, the new Airbus A350 is claimed to have LED lightning that slowly changes to assist natural sleep rhythms. On the other hand, airliner manufacturing giant Boeing claims that its new 787 Dreamliner helps reduce jet lag by keeping cabin humidity at a comfortable 14%.
While technology may one day make jet lag a thing of the past, we aren’t there quite yet. For now, do your best to remember the tips in this article. Stay hydrated, eat healthy, and try to adapt to your destination’s time as early as possible.
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