Jet lag. Ugh. It’s more than being tired after a long plane ride. It’s the dull, discombobulated fog–with a touch of nausea and irritability–that hits when we cross time zones. Much like giving birth, it’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. You can prepare, but won’t understand it until it happens.
What causes jet lag?
Glad you asked. It’s a real thing, caused when our sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm) gets disrupted. The more time zones we cross–starting with three–the worse it gets. Our brains can’t keep up with the rapid change. There’s also evidence that dehydration and the reduced amount of oxygen during the flight can be factors. For a more detailed medical explanation, click here.
Jet lag is always an east-west or west-east condition. It doesn’t happen when we fly north or south, because there aren’t changes in daylight or darkness. Flying east is more difficult, because it makes the day longer…we have to resist the urge to sleep. Flying west seems easier, because it’s later in the day when we arrive. We can go to bed sooner.
Can’t we just prevent jet lag?
We can sure try! There are some easy ways to dodge jet lag, starting by leaving home well-rested. Don’t stay up late the night before your flight. Get packing done early. Make and use lists to reduce your stress level.
- Schedule your arrival in late afternoon or early evening.
- Before a long flight eastward, get up earlier and go to bed earlier for a few days before your departure.
- When you get on the plane, set your watch or calculate the time for your destination time zone. Even that helps your brain adjust.
- Bring a sleep mask and ear plugs. Sleep during your destination’s night time, even if it means giving up inflight meals and movies.
- Consider taking melatonin or a sleep aid, such as Dream Water.
- Get a cool app that helps you prepare. Look at Timeshifter, Jet Lag Rooster, or StopJetLag to see some examples.
What if I get jet lag anyway?
It happens. Some folks are simply more prone to it–I’m one of them. When I first started to fly long distances, I was convinced that jet lag was simply mind-over-matter. Wrong. Finally, I had to face the fact that I can reduce it, but not avoid it. But that’s me.
- Seek the sun! Sunshine and natural light reset your body clock. If you’re going east, enjoy afternoon sunshine. Heading west, get out in the morning.
- Keep active to promote natural fatigue. Early morning and late afternoon exercise seem to be most effective.
- Short (20 minute) naps can help, but resist the temptation to crawl under the covers for a few hours.
- Take a cold shower at night and a warm one in the morning. (I’m just reporting this one…cold showers aren’t happening for me. Period.)
- Get a prescription. Even Rick Steves, America’s most popular travel expert, admits that an occasional sleeping pill can make a big difference. It gets you to sleep, even when your brain and body want to keep going.
But wait, there’s more!
Jet lag does more than mess with your body clock. It affects other systems, too.
Digestion: Your gut can slow down…or speed up. Result: constipation or diarrhea. It’s confused about when to feel hungry. Harvard Medical School did a study that found fasting–or at least cutting back–for 16 hours before arriving at your destination helps the digestive system reset. Apparently being hungry takes precedence over jet lag. Also, avoid big meals for a day after you arrive.
Immune System: Seems that the immune system has an internal clock, too, made up of two 12-hour periods. When time zones–and day/night–get messed with, it takes time for the body’s disease-fighting cells to recover. Eat healthy foods, stay hydrated, and of course, wash your hands!
Jet lag can be a challenge, for sure. But when you prepare for it, you’ll be able to get out and explore sooner, with fewer problems. And…we all know that a little jet lag is a small price to pay when you’re seeing the world!
Now that you know what to do, ready to travel?