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Circadian Rhythm and the Jet Lag Blues

Like a hangover, everyone has a “cure” for jet lag.  Fatigue, difficulty concentrating and inability to sleep are the most common symptoms.  Some people even have digestive problems.

The condition is a result of high speed travel across multiple time zones.  It disrupts our circadian rhythm, the inner clock that controls our sleeping and waking patterns.

JetlagAccording to experts, there is no surefire cure for this condition.  But there are some things you can do to alleviate the symptoms and help your body recover more quickly from rapid time change.  Different people respond in different ways to these preventive and follow-up measures, so you’ll have to experiment a little to see what works best for you.  Here are a few things you can try.

 

Drink lots of water before, during and after the flight

I know this is hard during the flight, especially for women, because you have to make frequent trips to the restroom.  Jet restrooms are cramped, often dirty (especially on overseas flights) and it’s hard to maneuver around a seat-mate if you have a window seat.  The aisles are tight and there may be turbulence.  But just do it.  Drink water.

Some airlines are better than others about providing water to their passengers.  In the best case scenario, attendants will bring around a pitcher of water and a cup periodically throughout the flight.  Some airlines provide self-serve water stations, usually near the restrooms.  Others are down-right stingy.  Sometimes the flight attendants seem annoyed if you ask for water.  But ask anyway, if they don’t offer it.

I had a long flight from Los Angeles to Australia on Virgin Australia.  Before we took off, they emphasized the importance of staying hydrated throughout the flight.   Attendants came around with water frequently and there was also a self-serve water station.

When I was on a long flight from JFK to Beijing on a China Airlines jet, I had the opposite experience.  Flight attendants did not come around with water and were annoyed when I asked for it.  They took their time to deliver it and gave me only a very small cup.  I always asked for refills.

 

Stretch your legs

Sitting stationary for long periods of time, such as on a flight, can cause deep vein thrombosis.  This condition can be life-threatening.  It’s best to get up and stretch your legs as frequently as you can during a flight, even if you don’t have to go to the restroom.

You can also stretch your legs a bit while in your seat.  My yoga instructor sits in a lotus position when flying (in economy class, no less).  This yoga pose has many benefits, including relieving sciatica pain, enhancing blood circulation in your body and improving digestion, all of which help to prevent jet lag.  Not all of us are able to do lotus pose, though, but we can stand and walk the aisles periodically during a flight.

 

Don’t overeat or drink too much alcohol on the flight

The best option is not to drink alcohol at all while flying.  Usually the wine isn’t very good, anyway (unless you’re flying Air France).  You should also avoid eating rich foods.  It’s best to eat light, particularly fruits and vegetables.  This will help energize you.

 

Normalize your sleep patterns

On overseas flights or anytime you’re crossing multiple time zones, it’s best to reset your watch to the local time of your destination at the beginning of your flight.  That way, your brain begins to adjust to the new time well before you arrive.

During an overnight flight, airline attendants will turn down the cabin lights and ask all passengers to pull their window shades down, even if it’s light outside.  The idea is to simulate night so you can sleep and begin to switch your inner clock to your destination’s hours.

Sleep, if you can.  Some people are not able to sleep on a jet, or the circumstances may prevent a sound sleep, even with earplugs.  Flights can sometimes be noisy if there are babies or young children aboard.  I remember flying back from New Zealand on a redeye.  There were two babies near me who cried the entire flight.  There was nothing I could do about it, so I listened to music and stayed calm.  If you’re not able to sleep, you still need to relax.  Close your eyes and let your brain rest.

When it’s “morning” in your destination, the flight attendants will wake you up gradually by raising the lights a little at a time to simulate dawn.  You start to smell the coffee and soon breakfast is served.  Eat just enough to give your body some fuel, but don’t overdo it.

 

After you arrive, stay awake and move around

To help normalize your sleep patterns after you arrive at your destination, refrain from taking a nap.  Instead, stay up and move about until your normal bedtime – local time.  You might want to take a warm bath before you retire for the night, and think happy thoughts.  You’ve arrived safely and are going to have such a great time on your trip.

I generally don’t like to take medication for insomnia, but some people find that melatonin helps them with jet lag-related sleep issues.  Dr. Andrew Weil recommends using 2.5 mg of melatonin for one or two nights at bedtime to overcome jet lag.  There is also a homeopathic product called “No Jet Lag” that some may find useful.  I’ve never tried it, so I can’t comment on its effectiveness.

After an overseas flight, the first thing I do when I get to my hotel room is to stretch out on the floor and do restorative yoga poses.  This helps to prevent muscle cramping and re-energizes me.  It gets the blood flowing in a gentle way, and allows my muscles and internal organs to normalize.

Here are some of the best yoga poses you can do to counteract the effects of a long flight:

http://www.care2.com/greenliving/5-best-restorative-yoga-poses.html.  For one of these poses, if you don’t have a strap with you, you can always improvise with a scarf, belt or bath towel.

Light therapy is effective for some people.  After I arrive at my hotel room, stretch and freshen up a bit, I like to get outside and walk around, explore the immediate neighborhood and become familiar with my new surroundings.  If it’s sunny, great!  I get the benefit of the sunlight.  I also stretch my muscles and get the circulation going, and a walk is just plain relaxing.

British Airways has an online Jet Lag Calculator that you may find helpful.  Check it out here:http://www.britishairways.com/travel/drsleep/public/en_us#.

I plugged in the values for my trip to Barcelona I’ll be taking in December.  Here are the results:

Our recommendations:

Day 1

Seek light between 10:00 am and 12(noon):30 
Avoid light between 12(noon):30 and 15:00 pm

Day 2

Seek light between 22:00 pm and 0:30 am 
Avoid light between 0:30 am and 3:00 am

Seeking light

The advisor has suggested the optimum time to expose yourself to light. Light is important because it is one of the primary cues that the body clock uses to maintain its link with the outside world.

When it comes to seeking light, any kind of light will do. Daylight is best, but if it’s not available, simply switching on a bedroom light is sufficient to help you minimise the effects of jet lag.

Avoiding light

Avoidance of light at certain times is also an important cue to the body clock to help you recover more swiftly from the effects of crossing time zones.  Avoiding light can be achieved by drawing the blinds or curtains in the room you are in, or wearing an eye mask. If there’s nothing else you can do, then simply wearing dark glasses will help.

Meals and exercise

In addition, adjusting your exercise and main meal times to your new time zone will help to synchronise your body clock sooner.

While I knew that light can help with jet lag, I was not aware that avoiding light during certain hours is also important.  It makes a lot of sense.  I’ll try this on my Barcelona excursion.

I hope the above information helps you stay energized and strong on your next overseas trip.  Bon voyage and may you stay happy and healthy.

 

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