Photo Credit: by Skye Sherman
If you’ve ever jetted off on a long trip that crosses time zones, you’re probably familiar with the traveler’s “illness” we call jet lag. Also known as desynchronosis, jet lag can cause symptoms like sleepiness during the day and feeling wide-awake at night as well as fatigue, reduced concentration and alertness, disorientation, and irritability.
Almost everyone experiences insomnia or its opposite as a result of jet lag, but other less common effects of jet lag can even include depression and tummy troubles since our digestive hormones get out of whack when they’re not synced properly with the real-world time where we arrive.
In this article, we’ll tackle some jet lag tips, tricks, and myths to help you combat jet lag and fly comfortably. Staying healthy while traveling is vital to enjoying your trip, and so much of that ties back to proper sleep and eating habits, which is where jet lag can interfere.
How to avoid jet lag: Is there really a way to beat jet lag?
Before we can discuss the possibility of beating jet lag, we need to start at the beginning and go back to the basics: what is jet lag, exactly?
Jet lag strikes when our body’s biological clock is out of sync with the current real-world time due to traveling. Hopping across time zones on long-haul flights can really confuse our bodies, which haven’t quite evolved to catch up with our modern-day ability to travel at breakneck speeds when compared to how far and fast our own two feet can carry us!
LiveScience explains, “A ‘master clock’ in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus controls the body’s circadian rhythm. This clock responds to external signals — most notably, sunlight — to sync the body’s internal timing with that of the environment.”
When the external signals no longer match up to the body’s internal clock, we feel the effects. Those symptoms are what we call jet lag.
While there’s no surefire cure for jet lag, there are ways you can lessen its effects. One tip is to begin following your destination’s time zone a few days or hours before you fly so that your body begins to recalibrate and get used to the upcoming shift. You can use a light box that provides simulated sunlight to assist you in these efforts. You might also want to use the supplement melatonin (which occurs naturally in the body) to assist in your efforts of retraining your body to sleep and wake when you tell it to.
You should also consider what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. To balance your circadian rhythms and help to stave off jet lag discomfort, the CDC says you should stay on top of your exercise, sleep, and healthy diet regimen in the period leading up to a trip. The healthier you are, the quicker you should be able to rebound. The CDC also recommends avoiding alcohol and caffeine while in the air since both of these substances can alter your sleep patterns. As always, you should drink plenty of water while flying and move around the cabin when possible to keep your blood flowing and ward off stiffness and restless legs syndrome.
And, of course, one of the best things you can do is try to alleviate the potential harm of jet lag by avoiding scheduling any important meetings or appointments for the first couple days of a trip. Give your body time to rest, recharge, and get acclimated to your new surroundings in a healthy environment so that you don’t add unnecessary stress into the mix.
Why is jet lag such a big deal?
If you’ve never experienced jet lag before or have only had a handful of experiences with jet lag, you may be wondering: what’s the big deal? Isn’t it just a temporary state of sleepiness that passes after your next solid night of rest? Why bother examining the ins and outs of jet lag and how to beat it?
While jet lag is undoubtedly unpleasant to experience, it’s also more than that: in fact, jet lag can be downright harmful, even dangerous.
According to HowStuffWorks, “The Pentagon worries that jet lag will impair pilots' performance and endanger soldiers on missions, and companies worry that jet-lagged executives may not bring their A game to meetings and make bad deals as a result. Those worries are justified. According to a 2010 study by University of California researchers, the brains of hamsters subjected to chronic jet lag created new neurons at about half the rate of normal stay-at-home members of their species, and showed memory and learning deficits as a result.”
Jet lag isn’t just uncomfortable: it’s actually bad for you! That’s why jet lag is such a big topic of discussion. People want to know how to avoid it or at least lessen its effects.
Jet lag facts and myths
Some people claim that when it comes to beating jet lag, flying fewer hours is better because it makes the effects of jet lag less extreme. This is true! On shorter flights to closer destinations, you may not experience jet lag at all. If you don’t cross a time zone, jet lag shouldn’t be a factor whatsoever.
Typically jet lag only kicks in when you travel quickly (by flying) across two or more time zones. The further away you go, the longer and more intense your jet lag symptoms are likely to be. And it just makes sense that the less hours of difference between your home and your destination, the less of a shift your body needs to adjust to.
Another jet lag myth surrounds whether jet lag is worse flying east to west or west to east. Some think that flying to a time zone that’s ahead of you will be easier to adapt to than a time zone behind you. However, according to WebMD, “Jet lag is generally worse when you ‘lose time’ traveling west to east.”
LiveScience explains, “The brain has an easier time adjusting to westward travel compared with eastward travel … This is due to a small quirk in the cells in the body that control the biological clock, or circadian rhythm: These cells don’t operate on a perfect 24-hour schedule. Instead, the cells’ daily cycle is closer to 24.5 hours. Because the cells that control the body’s clock operate on a slightly longer day, it’s easier to travel in a direction that extends the length of the day … Flying east across time zones, on the other hand, results in a shortening of the day, so it is more difficult for the body to adjust.”
If your trip will take you west to east, moving forward across time zones, be extra prepared to combat jet lag when you arrive.
It’s also true that jet lag tends to be worse the older you are. Younger people tend to recover more quickly. As you age, you should plan to give yourself more time to adjust to the demands of travel and jet lag.
Jet lag and COVID-19: Here’s why you may confuse them
Did you know jet lag and COVID-19 can have similar symptoms? Actress Rita Wilson first thought her COVID-19 symptoms were simply a result of jet lag.
According to SELF, “The symptoms of the coronavirus can include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and a loss of taste or smell, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain. But some of those symptoms may feel similar to other conditions, including allergies and the flu. And, early on in the illness, when it’s likely to be less severe, you could confuse the symptoms with something like jet lag.”
That’s why when Wilson first felt things like the fatigue, loss of appetite, and nausea she experienced due to COVID-19, she thought it was because of jet lag and chalked it up to the demands of her schedule.
If you travel during the pandemic and find yourself feeling the effects of jet lag, you may want to take extra precautions to ensure that you recover within a day or so. Otherwise, your symptoms could be a sign of something more.
Jet lag remedies and products to beat jet lag
While there’s no way to guarantee you won’t suffer from jet lag, there are some remedies and products you can try to help alleviate your symptoms.
Conde Nast Traveler recommends adapting to your new time zone before you depart, staying hydrated, moving around in-flight, employing different strategies when you travel east versus west, eating light, hitting the gym when you land to help improve sleep quality and mimic your normal routine at home, avoiding alcohol, using melatonin supplements if needed, and trying different apps, such as the TimeShifter app, that are built to help reduce the effects of jet lag.
TimeShifter says “light is the most important time cue for resetting your circadian clock” which is why the app helps to notify you about what you should be doing and when, whether that means napping, waking, exercising, or winding down. “Managing when you see and avoid light is critical to adapting to new time zones quickly,” they explain. “The right light exposure at the right time can significantly accelerate your adaptation. Seeing light at the wrong time will make your jet lag worse.”
Canada.com also recommends the following products to banish or reduce jet lag: My Flight Pack, No-Jet-Lag homeopathic jet lag pills, Dream Water all-natural sleep aid, and The Organic Pharmacy’s homeopathic Jet Lag Pill. These products offer no guarantee to protect you from jet lag, but they may help.
Photo Credit: by Skye Sherman
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