How to avoid the worst effects of jet lag

Travelling to the other side of the world is exciting, but jet lag can often write-off the first few days of your holiday.

Experts at NASA’s Fatigue Management Team say that – on average – it takes travellers about a day per time zone to adapt.

Getting back to your normal sleeping patterns when you get home can also be a challenge.

What happens to your body when you travel through time zones?

Jet lag is “a physiological condition which is a consequence of alterations to the circadian rhythm.” This rhythm is your normal ‘body clock’. It tells you when it’s time to go to bed, when to wake-up and when to eat.

Your body clock is an internal time-keeping system, but it’s also affected by the light-cycle of night and day.

Jet lag often results in extreme tiredness, headaches, insomnia and irritability.

A few fast facts:

  • Shift-workers can experience the same symptoms as travellers.
  • ‘Social’ jet lag – where you go to bed later and sleep-in on weekends – can also throw out your body clock.
  • It’s worse for older people – the effects are felt more and it can take longer to get back ‘in synch’.
  • Eastward travel generally makes you feel worse.
  • Your body temperature and hormone regulation vary depending on your body clock. Both can be thrown-out when travelling.
  • Jet lag ‘disrupts’ the brain. It interferes with the neurons that affect deep sleep and cause physical fatigue. It also impacts REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which we associate with dreaming. It’s also thought to play a role in mood, learning and memory.

7 ways to reduce the effects of jet lag

  1. Try adjusting your body clock before you head-off

One study showed that you’ll feel better if you start retraining your body to align with your local destination time.  Three days before you travel, begin to adjust your exposure to light to align with day and night in your new destination.

  1. Take care what you eat and drink – and get moving

According to Stephen Landells, long-haul pilot and flight safety specialist at BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association), you should drink plenty of water, eat lightly and at sensible times, and try to avoid caffeine or other stimulants during your flight. Once you arrive, get a little exercise.

  1. Avoid trying to fit into your new time-zone straight away

Often the most common advice is to try and adjust your body clock as soon as you hit the ground. But, according to the NASA Fatigue Management Team, it’s best to ease into your new time zone.

  1. Take melatonin

Melatonin is “a pineal hormone that plays a central part in regulating bodily rhythms”. Taken in tablet form, it’s been successfully used to realign jet-lagged travellers with the outside world. A study on its effects, indicated that it should be taken close to the target bedtime at your destination. As with any drug, it’s best to use only in the short-term, and check with your doctor first.

  1. Adopt a good pre-sleep routine

There are certain activities that help settle you down for the night. They might include:

  • taking a soothing bath or a warm shower
  • reading calming material
  • making your environment conducive to sleep (darken the room, shut out the noise)
  • avoid alcohol or caffeine before bedtime
  1. Try 20 minutes of shut-eye

To avoid that overwhelming feeling of tiredness, try taking a 20-minute nap once you arrive at your destination. But make sure you put on the timer. Any longer than 20 minutes and you’ll experience ‘sleep inertia’ and feel even worse.

  1. Stay on local time

If you’re only taking a short trip (say, three days) and not travelling through more than three or four times zones, it’s sometimes best to stick to your home time zone.

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