If you’ve ever traveled in an east-west direction by plane then you have experienced jet lag, or if you prefer the scientific term, desynchronosis.
Many of our body’s systems and processes are governed by circadian rhythms. A circadian rhythm is a natural twenty four hour biological clock that resets certain physiological cycles for good health. Our sleep cycle is one example, and jet lag throws off this rhythm. Air travel causes us to move through time zones faster than we can adjust to the change. It creates a shortened or lengthened day, and also alters the light/dark cues we receive from daylight.
The Effects of Jet Lag
Typical symptoms of jet lag include daytime sleepiness, insomnia, repeated nighttime awakenings, headaches, lack of concentration, impaired judgment, and stomach discomfort, to name a few.
It takes time to adapt to a new time zone. Our natural sleep/wake rhythm can only adjust an hour or two a day. Traveling across eight time zones, for example, may take anywhere from four days to more than a week to fully adjust to the new schedule.
Usually it is slightly easier to adjust to travel in a westerly direction. Travel in that direction extends the day, and most people naturally prefer a day that is slightly longer than 24 hours.
When you change more than six time zones your body can become really confused and some circadian rhythms may shift in opposite directions from rhythms, which intensifies and prolongs the jet lag symptoms.
Not everyone is equally adaptable to circadian adjustments, either. Some people seem to be able to travel back and forth smoothly, while others suffer through every time zone change they make. If you struggle with daylight savings changes then you are probably susceptible to jet lag.
Tips on Dealing with Jet Lag
There are a number of ways to reduce or eliminate the effects of jet lag, or at least help yourself to quickly adapt to the new time schedule.
If your trip is only a couple days long it is best to not try to adjust to the new schedule. Instead, stay on the “home” schedule. You can do this by keeping your watch set to your home time, eating meals at your home schedule, and sleep on the home schedule. Also, avoid sunlight, which will force your sleep/wake cycle to shift.
For trips lasting more than one or two days you can prepare ahead of time. A couple days before you depart begin to shift your sleep and eating schedules towards the “away” time zone. This can be particularly helpful when you are changing more than six hours of time zones, allowing you to make the change gradually.
Once in the new time zone, jump in with both feet. Force yourself to go to bed and get up at the local time, even though it may feel like you are staying up all night to get there. Taking a 20-30 minute nap in the early afternoon (before 3 PM) can help you get through the fatigue while you adjust. See my article on the subject of napping for more information.
One of the most important factors in adjusting our circadian rhythms is sunlight. Get plenty of it as you adjust to the new schedule. The first couple days in a new location stay outside as much as possible during the day.
Caffeine and alcohol actually worsen the effects of jet lag, so avoid them. Staying hydrated with fluids such as water, juice and herbal teas, on the other hand, will enable you to adjust more quickly.
Use my best sleep tips to follow ideal sleep practices. When trying to adjust to a new time zone following good sleep hygiene is even more important than usual.
Another great way to jump start your time zone adaptation is to get some exercise, especially if it is done outdoors. Studies have shown that daytime exercise plays a significant role in regulating our circadian rhythms. By exercising mid-day outside you get sort of a double-whammy effect that should help you adjust to the new time zone as fast as possible.