Jet lag is the one thing that can really drag you down after a long haul flight, profoundly affecting your concentration, alertness, and sleep patterns. It is also referred to as time zone change syndrome or desynchronises and is caused by our circadian rhythms (our natural body clock) being turned upside down. Interestingly, the symptoms of jet lag often tend to be more severe if the traveller is going from west to east rather than east to west.
Up until around 80 years ago, the term jet lag of course didn’t exist. We had no way of crossing into time zones with ‘jet speed’, so being a fairly recent phenomenon, the term has been incorporated into most languages simply as “jet lag”.
The biochemical, physiological and environmental processes which regulate our bodies have a 24 hour cycle called the circadian rhythm. This internal time keeping system is what tells us it is time to sleep, when it’s time to be awake, when we should eat, and what our body temperature controls should be doing. When our circadian rhythms get upset it affects our biological clock and causes jet lag. This can also happen with many night shift workers.
When our sleep-wake cycle is disrupted we feel discomforts such as irritability, lethargy, drowsiness, tiredness, and disorientation. The more time zones crossed, the harder it is for the body to adjust. Both our hormone regulation and body temperature control systems become out of synch and the adjustment takes days, if not weeks, to return to some sort of equilibrium. Until all of these things are reconciled to our new environment, we are jetlagged.
What is a long haul flight?
Short-haul – less than 3 hours
Medium-haul – 3-6 hours
Long-haul – 6-12 hours
Extra-long haul – more than 12 hours
Crossing the hemispheres
It’s even more of a challenge to those travellers who cross from the northern to the southern hemisphere (and vice versa). Not only does the body have to adjust to the new time zone, but it also has to cope with adjusting to a different season. You may find that you have to cope with seasonal phenomenon such as hay-fever, arriving in the summer of one part of the world, where it had become dormant in the winter from where you have left from.
For jet lag to have an effect the traveller must travel east-west or west-east. If you are flying up or down, for example; Canada to Argentina luckily you will not suffer jet lag.
Which is the worst route?
When travelling eastwards you will develop greater symptoms as the day will seem longer. It will take around a day per time zone to adjust. However, the circadian rhythm is not as confused when it travels westwards. The reason is because it prolongs the body clock’s normal day to a night cycle, making the day slightly longer than 24 hours. If you are travelling eastwards, you will run in direct opposition to your body clock, trying to sleep when it’s actually time to wake up and this has a much harsher effect.
How to beat it
Go to sleep an hour or two earlier each night at least a week before you travel, especially if you are travelling eastwards. This will help with any sleep deficit or ‘sleep debt’ that you accrue. If travelling westwards, go to sleep as late as you can manage each night a few evenings before you fly, as it will help you adapt to your new time zone. For example; if travelling from Sydney to London, go to sleep at 1-2am.
Try to avoid alcohol during your flight, it really doesn’t help the situation, but instead frequently sip on water throughout your waking hours.
If you feel sleepy, have a nap and don’t feel you have to resist it. Do set your clocks and watches to that of the time zone you are going to and work around that if possible. Investing in some good ear plugs, eye mask, and a supportive easy to carry pillow will make resting on the flight infinitely more comfortable.
Your new time zone
Because your internal body clock is still operating on the old time zone, your jetlagged body will be very much out of synchronization and will be more confused by it’s different zones, adjusting at their own times. If you get as much daylight in your new zone as possible, this can help ‘reset’ your body clock. The ‘reset’ tends to be triggered off by the light entering the eyes, in particular the blue spectrum of light. Go with the flow of your new time zone and change your routine to the local time.
Avoid sleeping pills
It is better all round to let your body adapt as naturally as possible to your new surrounds. However, it might just be too difficult and you may need a little extra help. You need to consult your physician prior to your departure and follow their advice. Hopefully, this will not be more than a couple of days of a light sedative to get you through the worst of it.
An alternative is to look at some of the homeopathic products available. Look for products that contain leopard’s bane, daisy, wild chamomile, ipecac, and club moss. A herb called valerian is a powerful natural sedative and is available in capsule form, but it is important to consult your physician before taking any of these or alternative herbal or homeopathic remedies.
What about Melatonin?
In the US melatonin, which is a synthetic dietary supplement, is taken to help restore natural sleep patterns disturbed by jet lag. In 1989 a report in the British Medical Journal published the results of 20 volunteers who flew between New Zealand and the UK who took either 5mg of melatonin or a placebo replacement. These were taken prior to and after their flights resulting in those taking the drug returning to their sleep patterns within 2.85 days with that compared to those on the placebo who took 4.15 days to return to normal.
However, it is recommended that proceed with caution with melatonin as many scientists in the US and other countries remain unconvinced that there is enough evidence to warrant the over-all efficiency of this medication. There have been no long term tests or studies on the effects of taking melatonin, and there is no regulation for melatonin to meet a minimum industry standard.