Luckily there aren’t too many downsides to long distance air travel but the ones that are can certainly be punishing.
Screaming babies notwithstanding, jet lag is at the top of my list.
Jet lag happens when we travel rapidly across time-zones and our body clocks (circadian rhythms) are disrupted.
According to an article written by Christian Nordqvist for Medical News Today, jet lag appears to involve a disruption in two separate but linked groups of neurons in the brain.
One of these groups of neurons is associated with deep sleep and the effects of physical fatigue. The other group controls the dream state of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
The group of neurons involved in REM sleep finds it harder to adjust to the new cycle and the two groups become out of sync.
In all the decades I’ve been lucky enough to travel overseas, I’ve often wondered why I haven’t always felt jet lagged. I’ve since learnt that the symptoms are generally more intense and last longer when you’re east bound compared to travelling westward.
The reason is our bodies have less time to adjust.
Travelling west prolongs our body clock experiencing its usual day-night cycle.
Travelling east runs in direct opposition to our body clock and it tries to go into reverse which obviously takes a harder toll on our bodies.
Jet lag Symptoms
- insomnia, daytime tiredness and difficulty sleeping
- mild depression
- unsettled feeling
- irritability or anxiety
- hard to concentrate and make decisions
Unfortunately there are currently no treatments or any magic pill we can take to alleviate jet lag but there are some lifestyle adjustments we can implement to help minimise the symptoms.
Experts say the sooner we can adjust to the local time, the sooner our body clocks will adapt to our new destination.
Before your flight
- In the week leading up to your long haul flight eastward, start getting up and going to bed early.
- For your westward flight, in the days leading up to your departure start getting up and going to bed later
- Break your long haul flight with a stopover
- Consider travelling in a westerly direction where possible
During your flight
- Some experts advise changing your watch to your destination time but the Director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre says this is pointless unless you adjust the rest of your routine to the same time, which means eating at the ‘new’ dinner time and taking a nap if it’s the ‘new’ night time.
- Eat smaller meals
- Stay hydrated and water is the best fluid to drink.
The air inside the cabin is dryer than the air we breathe on the ground so it’s important to drink regularly to avoid dehydration.
- Avoid alcohol – it adds to your dehydration and jet lag
- Avoid caffeine before and during your flight as it disrupts our sleep patterns
- Stretch and walk around the cabin whenever possible
- Sleep is effective at countering the symptoms of jet lag so try and sleep or nap throughout the flight
- Use a pillow with neck support
- Learn and adopt some relaxation techniques
While our body clock is run by our internal system, it’s affected by external factors like daylight and darkness
Using an eye mask and ear plugs helps our body’s melatonin levels to naturally adjust to sleep mode.
BBC News reported back in 2006 that scientists have found that we can easily adjust our body clocks when travelling to different time zones by simply wearing sunglasses to alter light patterns.
Results from a study conducted for British Airways by the Edinburgh Sleep Centre in Harley Street London, which monitored more than 1,000 passengers, indicated that wearing sunglasses during part of our long haul flight may help us adjust to our new time zone.
Dr Chris Idzikowski, Director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, revealed that without using sunglasses it took a day to recover for every hour of time difference travelled westward and 50 percent longer flying eastward, but by wearing shades on the plane, the adverse effects of jetlag were reduced.
He says our biological clock has 20,000 nerve cells in the brain so it’s a physical thing and not made up like many people think.
He adds, “The internal body clock steps up at dawn which is when we can manipulate exposure to light, it’s a way of fooling the biological clock.”
Long distance air travellers are advised to wear sunglasses during the latter stages of an overnight flight and for the first several hours after landing.
Dr. Idzikowski has used this technique on various flights but says we need to be aware that immigration officials can ask you to take them off, which will weaken the outcome.
The study also found that 67 percent of the passengers didn’t know how to manage jet lag, using inappropriate coping mechanisms instead, like trying to ignore it or drinking alcohol as a way to get through it.
Only 11 percent tackled the problem of jet lag with the correct balance of food, fluids, exercise and light exposure.
After your flight
- When you arrive at your destination try and spend time outside in the daylight
- Maximising your exposure to sunlight will help reset your body clock.
- Try and mimic your home bedtime routine and get to sleep at a respectable hour.
- Seek medical advice regarding jet lag and any medications you’re taking.
- Be sure to get clarification from your doctor on whether you should continue taking your medication at your ‘home time’ or how you should adjust it to the local time.
There are conflicting opinions amongst professionals as to whether napping during the day is a help or a hindrance when recovering from jet lag but sometimes I find I have no choice.
Doctors believe shift workers and night owls experience ‘social jet lag’, which causes the same energy sapping symptoms as you get from long distance air travel and if you add stress into the mix, it impacts even more on the intensity.
I hope these tips help you manage and recover quicker from your jet lag and I couldn’t resist leaving you with this quote from former US Vice President Al Gore, which resonated immediately with me.
Airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo – Al Gore former US Vice President
Wishing you safe travels.
Merry Christmas and may 2019 be your best year yet… cheers susie
Susie Elelman AM
Author, TV & Radio Broadcaster