Have you ever flown long distance or flown a few times over a few time zones in a period of days? Then chances are at some point you will have been hit by a wave of lethargy, tiredness, confusion and even indigestion or other bowel problems. This can sometimes be far more than the effects of a lack of sleep and crappy airline food, you may have experienced jet lag.
Jet lag is nothing serious, it is just one of those horrible things that any backpacker or long term traveller has to deal with from time to time. Jet lag is essentially your body having trouble adjusting to a new time zone. The good news is it is relatively easy to deal with, if you know how, and no, it doesn’t involve scrunching your bare feet on a carpet and running round a building full of terrorists in your vest! (Extra points for guessing the reference!)
Why do you get it?
Our bodies basically work to an internal clock, technically known as our circadian rhythms. Our body naturally knows when it is time to wake up, time to eat, time to rest, work hard and sleep. It basically recognises day and night. Crossing over time zones messes with that natural internal schedule, and it can take a little bit of time to reset itself.
There is also some clinical evidence that suggests that the air pressure in aeroplane cabins can play a role too. The air pressure is generally slightly lower than normal which means you are getting less oxygen into your blood stream than you normally would, and this can lead to impaired cognitive abilities, dehydration and lethargy. The impaired ability to think may actually explain all the idiots who stand up for half an hour as the plane taxis around the airport and block everyone from getting off the plane quickly.
What are the symptoms?
Our circadian rhythm controls a lot more than just when to sleep and wake up. The body really is a masterclass of interconnected systems, and our circadian rhythm also has a large effect on our body temperature and blood pressure, our digestion, bowel habits and urine production. That’s why you always have to get up to pee at the same time instead of being allowed a lie in!
When you get jet lag, the first and most obvious symptom will be that your sleep pattern will get messed up. You may find yourself being exhausted in the middle of the day and wide awake in the middle of the night. But because it also has an affect on other bodily systems, you may also have symptoms that include lethargy, muscle tiredness or even soreness, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability and memory problems, and female travellers may even find that they may get irregular periods if they travel frequently.
These symptoms are nothing serious in the short term, and will usually pass quite quickly if you acclimatise well and take time to adjust to the new time zone.
How to deal with it.
Before you fly you should try and adapt your sleeping and eating pattern to your destinations time zone. Don’t go the whole hog at first and start eating your dinner at 3AM, just start to modify your routine and go to bed an hour or so earlier or later a few days before you leave.
Sleeping on a plane is never easy, especially with airlines keeping making the conditions increasingly smaller and cramped, but try to get a little sleep on long flights if it helps you to adjust to the time zone when you arrive.
Eat healthily and get some regular exercise before you fly. A healthy body deals with the stresses of jet lag easier.
Don’t get stressed. I know flying is stressful but do everything you can to make the trip easier on yourself. Check in online, use relaxation techniques, whatever makes you less stressed. Just don’t try and do yoga in the security queue, they won’t like it!
Unless they are clinically prescribed for a condition, stay away from any sleep tablets or any other over the counter medication. Natural is best!
Change your watch or the clock on your phone to the time in your destination, that will help you psychologically prepare for the time zone change.
Stay hydrated, drink plenty of water or juice and avoid alcohol and caffeine. That means avoiding the triple JD and coke when the flight trolley comes round!
When you arrive in your new destination, try to change to the new time zone as quickly as possible, even if that means staying up all day if you are really tired. Eat meals at the same time as the locals and try to go to bed at the appropriate time.
Do some exercise and stretch your muscles. It will help with the muscle fatigue and soreness.
Give yourself a couple of days just to rest and acclimatise to your new surroundings. Don’t jump into your gap year adventures straight away and don’t plan your trip itinerary so tightly that you are rushing around trying to see and do everything when you first arrive and are leaving the city the next day. Giving yourself a couple of days will allow you to relax and rest properly, adjust your body clock to your new time zone properly and it will also let your body acclimatise to a new climate and help you deal with the effects of culture shock if you are in a new destination.
It may also be a good idea to pre book a private room for yourself just for the first couple of days for the exact same reasons. You can always ease yourself into the backpacker lifestyle after a couple of days have passed.
What about you? Have you ever suffered from jet lag? What tricks do you find work for you?