Traveling abroad is a dream for so many of us. How, to accomplish this dream, it’s necessary to spend hours trapped inside an airplane. Lining up for the security check, waiting for the boarding call, spending an unbearable amount of time in a confined space – air travel sure does come with its downsides. And the worst of them is jet lag.
After bravely enduring all the difficulties of reaching the location of your dreams, when you do arrive, jet lag kicks in to ruin your day, or sometimes, the better part of your week. But what is jet lag? And why does it happen?
The Science Behind Jet Lag
Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder that happens because your body and mind are in conflict with one another.
Our bodies have an internal clock, also known as the circadian rhythm. Your body’s clock is the reason you feel sleepy at almost the same time every night, and feel hungry when it’s time for lunch. Although this mechanism is built in, it is greatly impacted by external factors such as daylight.
When you travel across continents and time zones, your body’s clock gets thrown off. If you land just after noon and your body expects it to be the middle of the night, you’ll likely feel more like going to sleep than seeing the sights. Likewise, if you land at night and your body is expecting it to be daytime, going to sleep at your hotel can seem impossible. These are the results of jet lag. Our body’s clocks simply have no way to understand the concept of air travel.
The severity of the jet lag depends upon the number of time zones you have crossed, and your own health. Research has also proven that jet lag is more severe when one travels east, rather than when one travels west. This is because when you travel east you lose time. Your body clock has to adjust to an earlier time of sleeping. You may have noticed how it is not that difficult to push back your sleeping time by a couple of hours when you are busy. On the other hand, going to sleep earlier than your usual bedtime can be much more difficult.
Symptoms Of Jet Lag
Mostly, jet lag is a nuisance that can lead to a couple of wasted days. But sometimes it can also result in physical ailments.
The most common symptoms of jet lag include:
- Daytime sleepiness
- Loss of concentration
- Loss of appetite
- Gastrointestinal disturbance
An individual’s age and health determine the impact of jet lag on their bodies. Children, for instance, usually have very mild symptoms, and recover from jet lag very quickly. For frequent travelers, in addition to immediate symptoms, jet lag can also lead to more long-term issues. Studies have proven that an upset circadian rhythm leads to greater risks of cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes.
When you’re disoriented because of jet lag, you’re at a higher risk of accidents, like missing a stair and falling, or twisting your ankle stepping off the pavement. This is another reason why it’s very important to have travel medical insurance or travel insurance for your international trips. With insurance, at least you’ll know you can be covered if your jet lag causes you to take a tumble.
However, for a trip lasting a week, losing a few days to jet lag could mean a lot of missed opportunities and experiences. Luckily, there are some steps you can take to help minimize the effects of jet lag, and get the most from your trip.
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How To Overcome Jet Lag?
Unfortunately, there is no medical treatment to overcome jet lag. If you’re already suffering from it, there’s little you can do other than wait for it to pass. Within a few days, your body will re-synch its internal clock to the local time zone and you’ll start to feel normal again. But, if you prepare in advance before your next trip, you might be able to reduce the effects of jet lag, or possibly prevent it entirely.
The simplest trick to fight jet lag is to adjust your body clock gradually before you travel. If you are traveling west, push your bedtime back an hour each day for a week or two leading up to the trip, so that by the time you leave, your body’s clock will already be on your destination’s time. If you are traveling east, go to bed an hour earlier each night for the same period.
The latter is more difficult than the former, but it really helps your body when it is prepared in advance. Sudden changes in your sleep cycle after arriving in a different time zone are far more difficult.
However, changing your sleep pattern is challenging. If you have a full-time job or a family, shifting your waking and sleeping hours is often not a possibility. In fact, it’s likely that you’ll have more last-minute work deadlines to meet right before your vacation.
The more foolproof and intelligent way to fight jet lag is to manage exposure to light. Light is the primary external factor that tells your body when to sleep and wake up. By regulating your exposure to light, both natural and artificial, you can influence your body’s internal clock. In fact, scientists at NASA who train astronauts to overcome jet lag when they frequently shift between space agencies swear by this method of regulating light.
But what does it mean to regulate light?
Let’s say you are traveling from New York to London. You will be losing time, so your body clock has to adjust itself to sleeping before its regular bedtime. To do this, you need to avoid exposure to any kind of light during your flight. A simple and effective way to do this is by wearing sunglasses which will cut out light. In fact, you should keep your sunglasses on for a couple of hours even after you deboard.
When you are traveling in the other direction, from east to west, you need to do the exact opposite. Your body clock needs to adjust to sleeping later than its regular time, so you must expose yourself to as much light as possible during your flight and right after you deboard.
Many international airlines subscribe to these light exposure guidelines. They alter cabin lighting for the comfort of passengers depending upon whether they are traveling east or west. Nowadays, even apps can help monitor when your need to expose yourself to light and when to cut back. You can check out Timeshifter, Entrain, and other such apps which can provide reminders about when to sleep, wake, avoid light, and expose yourself to light.
Other Tips for Fighting Jet Lag
Managing your light exposure can drastically reduce the effects of jet lag. However, there are other steps you can take that may make this process even more effective:
- Cut back on, or avoid caffeine and alcohol altogether during and after your flight, since they can influence sleep patterns.
- Eat healthy foods and keep yourself hydrated upon arrival. Heavy meals and spicy foods require greater metabolism and can upset sleep time.
- If you or your travel companion are at risk for an extreme reaction, consult your doctor for a prescription of melatonin; a hormone that helps regulate the circadian rhythm.
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