When travelling across several time zones because of flying east to west or west to east, you disturb what are known as your circadian rhythms, the natural cycle or rhythm of your life across every 24 hour day. Consequently, people who travel across several time zones in this way suffer what is known as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, more commonly known as jetlag.
In very simple terms, suffering jetlag means that your body wants to sleep when it is the middle of the day in the place to which you have travelled, whilst you conversely feel wide-awake and full of vim in the middle of the night. Suffering from jetlag is a disconcerting and debilitating condition, one that generally takes a few days to get over, with the recovery period usually dependent upon the number of times zones which you have crossed.
As a general guideline, it is suggested that most people’s recovery rate will be one day for every time zone traversed in an easterly fashion, or one and a half days for every time zone crossed in the opposite direction.
In addition, there is some evidence that travelling west to east will cause more of a jetlag problem than going in the opposite direction with several possible reasons being put forward as to why this should be.
Firstly, most people have a circadian rhythm that does not exactly tie in with the 24-hour clock which is why it is generally far easier to stay up later at night than it is to get up earlier in the morning.
There is also some evidence that taking a flight going east is more likely to require you to stay up more than one full night in order to make the necessary adjustments to the local time zone.
Consider this comparison of going east to west and vice versa to get a clearer idea of why this might be the case:
In the first of these two scenarios, you have a situation which is equivalent to staying up throughout the night before finally going to bed at what would be 6 a.m. according to your biological clock. In effect therefore, you’re going to bed around nine hours later than normal.
However, in the second example, your biological time when you go to bed will be around 2 p.m. after staying up all night, which means that you 14 hours later going to bed than normal.
The symptoms of jetlag vary from individual to individual, as does the severity of the problem. However, some or all of these ‘symptoms’ could be expected in an individual who is suffering from jet lag:
- Disorientation, inability to concentrate and general mental ‘fuzziness’.
- Becoming unreasonable or irrational far more easily. Once you have suffered through a long flight, the last thing you need to do is fight your way through customs and immigration to then have to find the train station or a taxi to get to your hotel.
- Disturbed and broken sleep. This often serves to increase your irritability and unreasonableness.
- General ennui and fatigue that makes it very difficult to achieve anything meaningful.
- Dehydration that can often cause headaches and make you more susceptible to minor medical problems like colds, flu and other infections.
- Your limbs sometime swell in flight so you might have sore legs or feet.
- Travelling to a distant country can often bring on other minor medical problems like upset stomach or diarrhea, often associated with a change of food and water as well as spending many hours on the plane.
There is no doubt that even seasoned travelers can find it difficult to come to terms with suffering jetlag. Nevertheless, there are quite a few things that you can do in order to minimize the adverse effects that you feel.
Before you fly
- If you have been feeling a bit under the weather anyway, you should consult your doctor and tell him or her that you are planning to fly. The doctor may have something that they can give you to improve your condition or they may have recommendations about how you can do so.
- If you have had trouble with your ears on previous fights, most commonly not being able to ‘pop’ them when the pressure is changing because the plane is taking off or descending, you might want to get a decongestant that you can use to help relieve this problem on your next flight. Alternatively, many people suck boiled sweets for the same reason, with mints being the most commonly favored choice.
- Try to get plenty of rest in the days leading up to your trip and plan everything well ahead too. Leaving everything to the last minute is a recipe for stress and tension and that is not going to help you enjoy the flight or recover from it is quickly as you should.
- Plan to wear loose, comfortable clothing whilst flying because wearing tight clothing in a cramped environment such as an airline cabin is going to increase your discomfort and stress levels.
- On the day you are flying, avoid drinking too many caffeine laden drinks such as coffee as caffeine increases the risk of being dehydrated. Drink plenty of water on the day you fly instead of your normal coffee or tea.
- The Argonne Diet is a diet plan that is specially formulated to help offset the worst effects of jetlag, and for a small fee ($10.95), you can have a completely personalized anti-jetlag diet plan calculated for you.
During the flight
- Make sure that you drink plenty of water whilst flying – at least 8 – 12 fluid ounces every hour, preferably mineral water or some other higher quality water that you brought with you yourself rather than the water that is served on the plane (although if this is all that is available, it is better than nothing).
- Avoid coffee and alcohol on the plane, as both are diuretics and they can therefore cause you a dehydration problem. This will make you feel considerably worse whilst on the plane and probably also exacerbate your jetlag problem as well.
- Use lotion to avoid dehydration of your skin.
- Walk around the cabin reasonably regularly as this stops your body ‘stiffening up’ and can help to prevent other potential problems that will be highlighted in the next chapter.
- If you are due to arrive at your destination in the morning, try to sleep on the plane. Use a mask, earplugs and an inflatable neck support if these things help to induce a sleepy condition or increase your comfort so that it is more likely that you can sleep.
- If on the other hand you are due to arrive in the evening, try to stay awake on the plane. Keep yourself busy by watching the in-flight movies, listening to music or doing something reasonably active like puzzle solving.
- Avoid taking sleeping tablets, because whilst they will send you to sleep, the sleep that tablets put you into is often a very deep sleep, meaning that you hardly move in what amounts to a chemical induced comatose state. This naturally means that you hardly move whilst sleeping which again can induce other major problems to be highlighted later.
- Set your watch to the time at your destination as soon as your plane takes off because by doing so, you start the process of mentally preparing yourself for arrival.
After you arrive
- If at all possible, try not to go to bed until the nighttime after you have arrived. Do this and it really does minimize your jetlag problems, probably the single most effective step for doing so.
- In the arrival airport, use the stairs and walk about as much as possible to get your body moving and back to normality as quickly as possible.
- Your body has a natural electromagnetic system which will have been thrown out of synch by flying. Hence, when you arrive at your destination, try to swim in the ocean (for the salt water), take a warm Epsom salts bath or walk barefoot on the ground in an effort to return your system to its normal state.
- Get outside and go for a walk, especially if you can do so in the sunshine. Both the sunshine and the exercise help to reinvigorate you, meaning that you will feel less tired or jaded. This helps you to get through the day so that you can sleep at night which is a big step towards restoring your circadian rhythms to normality.
- Take a nice long relaxing shower or bath as a way of rehydrating your body, and keep drinking plenty of water. In the first few hours after arriving, it will probably help if you can avoid coffee, tea and alcohol for exactly the same reasons as highlighted previously.
- Try not to think about the time difference, and forget whatever time it is ‘at home’. Irrespective of why you have travelled, this new place is your home for now so try to ignore the time difference, because it is essentially irrelevant to you until you go back.
- Some studies suggest that taking melatonin tablets for three nights after flying just before bed helps to promote quicker recovery from jetlag, although not every expert agrees with this suggestion. Nevertheless, as melatonin is a natural hormone secreted by the pineal gland that is believed to have a direct relationship with your circadian rhythms, there is reason to believe that taking melatonin for this short period of time could help your circadian rhythms to get back to normal. One 0.5 mg tablet every night for the first three days should be enough but do not take the tablet before leaving or during the flight as this is believed to knock your circadian rhythms even further out of synch.