"What are the best ways to avoid jet lag?" It’s a question I am commonly asked, not only from a medical perspective but also due to my experience as a frequent flyer. Here’s some information on jet lag and my top tips on how to minimize its effects.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag is the term used for the collective symptoms caused by the disruption of the body’s ‘24 hour internal clock’ (also referred to as the circadian rhythm), normally as a result of rapid travel across several time zones. Disruption to the circadian rhythm is more likely to occur when crossing multiple time zones, i.e. when flying east to west or west to east. Jet lag may lead to indigestion and disturbance of bowel function, general malaise, daytime sleepiness, difficulty in sleeping at night, and reduced physical and mental performance. Its effects are often combined with tiredness caused by the journey itself. Jet lag symptoms gradually wear off as the body adapts to the new time zone but if you are on a tight schedule or if traveling with younger family members it can be difficult to face those first few days.
How do I minimize the effects of jet lag?
Quite simply, I would split up the regime into:
- Arrival at your destination
There are a number of simple but effective measures you can take that will help you settle into your new time zone more comfortably.
- If possible, start prepping a few days early. If your flight is headed east, try going to bed a couple of hours earlier. If you’re heading west, pretend you are a night owl. This works particularly well for smaller time changes.
- Eat well and rest up. You know the drill, now for the hard part: You’ve actually got to do it! Some studies suggest that the better you feel overall, the lighter the jet lag will be.
- Pack a pillow and headphones. This may help you sleep more comfortably on the flight (if you need to) and will also help you to acclimatize to a new environment at your destination.
- As soon as you board the flight, reset your watch for the new time zone. This will help you start to sync to the new time zone and can help you plan your naps on the flight so you can start to slot into a new time zone before you have arrived.
- Watch what you eat and drink. Try to eat light meals and limit excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption. Excessive indulgences can exacerbate the effects of jet lag and travel fatigue, and can also contribute to dehydration which will make you feel worse.
- Drink water! Most of us could do with drinking more water anyway, but this is especially true on a flight as we are more likely to be dehydrated.
- Make sure you stretch out on the plane. Simple stretches and strolls down the aisle will help to get the circulation moving, as long periods of sitting can increase the chance of blood clots.
When you arrive at your destination
- Try to create comfortable conditions when preparing for sleep and get as much sleep in as normal in the 24 hours after arrival. A minimum block of 4 hours sleep during the local night – known as ‘anchor sleep’ – is thought to be necessary to allow the body’s internal clock to adapt to the new time zone. If possible, make up the total sleep time by taking naps during the day in response to feelings of sleepiness. When taking a nap during the day, eyeshades and earplugs may help. Exercise during the day may help to promote a good night’s sleep, but avoid strenuous exercise within 2 hours of trying to sleep.
- Get some sunshine. The cycle of light and dark is one of the most important factors in setting the body’s internal clock. According to the Sleep Foundation, daylight is “a powerful stimulant for regulating the biological clock.” Well-timed exposure to daylight, preferably bright sunlight, at the destination, will usually help adaptation.
- Try melatonin. A number of studies have shown that melatonin can help to decrease the symptoms of jet lag, particularly if you are crossing more than 3 time zones. Melatonin works by resetting the natural body clock.
Remember, individuals, react in different ways to time zone changes. Frequent flyers should learn how their own bodies respond and adopt habits accordingly. Advice from a travel medicine clinic may help in formulating an effective coping strategy.
- Dr. Jatin Joshi