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When trying to uncover techniques that alleviate the effects of jet lag, it's easy to fall afoul of paralysis by analysis. The internet is home to an endless array of potions, elixirs, old wives tales, aunties techniques, and pills ‘backed by research,’ and unless your Google-Foo is strong, separating the wheat from the chaff can be a tricky task.
The reality of jet lag is that it cannot be avoided entirely, despite all the pills and potions on the internet. The best we can hope for when crossing multiple time zones in our sleek metal time capsules is to mitigate the worst effects of jet lag using a combination of preventative measures, and by manipulating our environment.
Before we dig too deep into the solutions, however, it would be best if we get a handle on the science of jet lag and its causes.
What Exactly is Jet Lag?
An unavoidable side effect of international travel, jet lag is the fatigue experienced when the cells that regulate our body clock, are unable to adjust to a rapid change in our sleep/wake cycles.
Our bodies use circadian rhythms, one of the two systems regulating the body’s sleep cycles and dictated by the rise and fall of the sun, to adapt our sleep cycle to the local environment via external cues such as light and temperature.
When we cross multiple time zones in a short space of time, our bodies need time to adjust to the change in environment. We feel the effects of jet lag while our body is trying to synchronize its body clock to the local environment.
Depending on how many time zones we cross, it can take days for our bodies to adjust to a new timezone and the effects of jet lag to fade, which is frustrating if we only have a short time to explore a new destination and enjoy our stay.
So, what can we do to lessen the impact of jet lag?
The Direction and Time of Day You Fly Matters
Flying east requires more preparation and recovery time than flying west. When we travel east, every timezone we cross is an hour earlier we need to wake, and an hour earlier we need to sleep. Due to the way our brain cells measure each 24-hour cycle, it’s easier to extend the length of a day than to shorten it.
So, while the consensus is that our bodies need one day to recover for every time zone crossed, when we travel east our bodies can take longer to recover due to the way our brains regulate sleep cycles. One of the best ways to combat flying east is to prepare before departure by controlling the body’s access to light.
By turning out the lights and restricting screens progressively earlier each night for 3/4 days before we fly, we control access to light and begin to influence our circadian rhythms.
The opposite goes for the morning. Be sure to rise earlier each day by degree and get straight out into natural light, or, if it’s winter, switch on the lights and jump in front of a computer for 20 minutes for a dose of blue light, effectively jump-starting the brain cells that regulate sleep.
While this may sound a little old school and a lot of work, it’s work that our bodies will need to do in any case, and we can either do it prior to departure or when we arrive at our destination. There is no magic pill to ‘fix’ jet lag.
If we're flying west, we reverse the strategy to expose ourselves to light later in the evening and ensure our environment remains dark further into the morning each day in the lead up to departure. The technique effectively advances or retards or body clock in preparation for travel, making it easier to adjust when we arrive with a shorter recovery time for long haul flights.
Controlling Exposure to Light Is the Key to Avoiding Jet Lag
Despite numerous products on the market that claim to address jet lag, when its stripped back to basics, it comes down to controlling our environment and exposure to light. This also includes while we are transiting the airport and on the plane. And that means employing any method we can, to control exposure to light in line with earlier preparation.
UV protective sunglasses, eye masks, earplugs (nothing to do with light, but they help with getting to sleep), and keeping an eye on the time to stay synced as close as possible to the destination time zone, will do more to alleviate the symptoms of jet lag, and make for a speedier recovery, than all the magic pills and potions combined.
Getting into direct sunlight after arriving at a destination, particularly if there is time for a short workout or brisk walk, can help the body to reset. Sunlight is nature's method for setting our body clocks, and its effect should not be underestimated.
Are There Any Products That Help with Jet Lag?
Of all the products that claim to help with jet lag, only a handful have a positive effect.
Taking small doses of Melatonin close to the destination sunset time in the lead up to departure can help reset our circadian rhythms. Production of Melatonin in the brain is tied closely to our external environment and is one of the triggers that alerts the body it’s time to sleep. Small doses of melatonin can help to manipulate our sleeping patterns.
Note: Although there are studies that show melatonin is effective in helping to reset sleeping patterns, it is not regulated or approved by the FDA.
If you enjoy a more hammer and anvil approach, taking sleeping pills to control sleeping times is another method used on a regular basis. The caveat to both approaches is that it's essential to talk to a medical professional before taking either substance, to ensure there are no adverse effects.
One of the keys to combatting jet lag, commonly ignored by passengers the world over, is avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Sleeping patterns are fragile creature’s when traveling, and upsetting them with substances which affect our body’s ability to fall asleep, and get adequate rest, effectively ruins any other efforts we may be taking to mitigate the effects of travel on our body.
And finally, water. When it comes to the clean and clear stuff, excess is best. Yes, being the window seat passenger that clambers across other passengers en route to the lavatory every 2 hours won't place us in the good graces of our fellow travelers, but drinking copious amounts of water has a huge impact on our body's ability to bounce back from travel.
If controlling our exposure to light, and using techniques to advance or retard our body clock don’t have the desired effect, then it may be time to pull out the big guns and jump into one of the more radical solutions.
Cryotherapy involves entering a chamber chilled to a balmy -220 odd degrees, and standing there in naught but your birthday suit for three minutes while your body floods itself with oxygen saturated blood cells due to exposure to such a radical/life threatening environment. Proponents claim that it resets the body’s natural rhythm’s, speeding up our ability to sync with our new surroundings and adjust sleeping patterns.
Personally, I’ll be sticking to the tried and true methods above backed by solid research and sound science.
Have any secret weapons in the fight against jet lag? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!
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