Whether you’re a hardened traveler, who collects hundreds of Frequent Flier Miles or someone that is preparing a holiday to a far-off location, if you fly to a different timezone you’ll likely experience jet lag. Along with the effects of jet lag on sleep and the inevitable tiredness, this will also affect your alertness and ability to concentrate.
What is Jet Lag?
For many years, jet lag was considered as just ‘in your mind.’ Today, researches know that the problem stems from an imbalance in our body’s natural “biological clock” that is triggered when we travel across time zones. Basically, our body runs on a 24-hour cycle called the “circadian rhythm.” This rhythm is determined by fluctuations in body temperature, levels of certain hormones and other conditions within the body. All of these are affected by our exposure to sunlight as well as help determine when we sleep and when we wake.
When taking a trip to a new time zone, our biological clock needs time to adjust to the new environment and remains on its original setting for several days. The result is that our body tells us that it’s time to sleep when it’s actually the middle of the day or to stay awake in the middle of the night. This is what we commonly refer to as jet lag. The effects of jet lag are especially strong when traveling through a number of time zones.
How to Prevent Jet Lag
Some simple changes before, during, and after arrival at your location can help decrease some of the symptoms of jet lag.
- Book a flight that arrives in the early evening and stay up until 10 p.m. local time. (If you must rest during the day, take a brief nap in the early afternoon, but for no more than 2 hours. Set?an alarm clock so you don’t oversleep.)
- Prepare your body for the time change by going to bed earlier or later for a few days before your trip. If you’re flying east, go to sleep earlier, and when traveling west go to sleep later.
- When you board the plane, set your watch to the time at your destination.
- Try not to sleep on the plane, as this is likely to make your jet lag worse.
- Avoid alcohol or caffeine at least three to four hours before going to bed. Both act as energizers, prevent sleep and significantly reduce the quality of the rest you do get.
- Stay hydrated!
- Upon arrival at your destination, avoid heavy meals. (A small snack – but not something with sugar – is okay)
- Avoid heavy workouts before going to bed. (Light exercise earlier in the day is fine though)
- Bring earplugs and a sleep mask to block out noise and light when you have to sleep during the day.
- Try to expose yourself to sunlight whenever possible. Daytime is an effective stimulant for resetting your biological clock. (Staying inside makes jet lag worse)
- A popular myth is that the kind of food you consume can help alleviate jet lag. There is no proof for that, however.
According to sleep experts, stress or the potential for stress can also have an adverse effect on your sleep. Two typical travel-related stress factors are the “First Night Effect” and the “On-Call Effect.” The first problem happens when trying to sleep in a brand-new or strange environment. The second is triggered by the worry that something could wake you up, like a phone ringing, noises from the hallway, or other loud and sudden noises.
Try some of these tips on your next trip to reduce travel-related stress and sleep problems.
- Bring familiar items from home like an image of a loved one, your favorite pillow, blanket, or perhaps a coffee cup) to relieve the sensation of being in an unfamiliar setting.
- Check with your hotel if they offer an answering service to their guests. Whenever feasible, have your calls taken care of by their service.
- Check your room for possible sleep disruptions such as light shining through the drapes, noises, etc. Many of these can be avoided or fixed by requesting a quieter room.
- Request two wake-up calls in case you sleep through the first one.
Improve Your Sleep Environment
Some of the most common environmental factors that impact the quality of your sleep are your sleep surface, the temperature or climate, and also elevation. Your age, as well as gender, also play a part in establishing the degree of sleep disruption caused by these factors. One study found that women wake up much easier from aircraft noise than men, while other studies suggest that men might actually be more sensitive to noise. Children are usually insensitive to loud noises, but this effect decreases with age.
We have all experienced that trickling tap, barking dog, or stereo blasting next door that has kept us awake all night. Sleep experts say the intensity, abruptness, consistency, intrusiveness, familiarity and also regularity of noise all affect the quality of your sleep.
Noise as low as 40 decibels or as high as 70 decibels can keep us awake. Interestingly, the lack of a familiar sound can also disturb sleep. Especially people living in big cities can find it difficult to sleep without the familiar noise of traffic. You might also find it tough to go to sleep without the familiar ticking of your alarm clock at home.
Luckily, your brain is very good at adapting to unfamiliar surroundings and plenty of sounds that are annoying at first, won’t bother you within just a few days. Studies show that people can get used to relatively loud noises in as little as one week. Important sounds, however, such as a crying baby, a sudden alarm, or even having your name called, won’t be easily ignored and will usually wake you.
Sleep experts are also examining the ability of certain noises to induce sleep. White Noise, for example, can drown out unwanted noise and help you fall asleep. White Noise can come from a variety of sources, such as a fan, TV or radio static, or a white noise machine.
Surprisingly, little research is available regarding the impact of your sleeping surface on the quality of your sleep. Generally, we know that people sleep better when they sleep lying down and with enough space to move around. Also here, women and older people seem to be more sensitive to changes in their sleep surface.
The point at which a person’s sleep is disturbed because of temperature or climate differs from person to person. Typically, temperatures over 75 degrees Fahrenheit (23.8 C) and below 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12.2 C) will wake most people.
The higher the altitude, the more significant the disruption to your sleep. Generally speaking, sleep disruption becomes more common at elevations of 13,200 feet (4000m) or more. The disruption is thought to be caused by reduced oxygen levels and the resulting changes in your oxygen intake. Most healthy people adapt to new altitudes in approximately two to three weeks.
What You Can Do to Reduce Jet Lag
Change Your Behavior
Changing your habits and taking sleeping aids are both typically accepted steps to minimize the effects of sleep disorders.
As mentioned, certain habits can help your body better adapt to new time zones as well as environments. Although there are no guarantees to a quick and sound sleep, simple changes in your behavior when traveling might help you get the best quality of sleep needed to start your day refreshed and revitalized.
Use Sleep Aids
According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 15 percent of respondents reported using either prescription sleep medication (8 percent) as well as/or an over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aid (10 percent) to help them fall asleep at least a few nights a month. While pills don’t fix the biological imbalance triggered by jet lag, they may assist take care of short-term sleeplessness. Be sure to talk about the use of sleeping pills with your medical professional before you try them. Sleeping pills can have severe side effects and cause dependence.
One over-the-counter sleep help that has gotten a lot of attention recently is melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally secreted hormonal agent in humans that affects the body’s circadian rhythms. There is some proof that when provided throughout the day, melatonin boosts the tendency to sleep. When taken at night, however, the amount of sleep remains unaffected.
Currently, melatonin is mostly available in health food stores and is not regulated by the FDA. Due to a lack of scientific evidence, melatonin remains an experimental approach to lowering sleep problems. Consult your medical professional before using melatonin to fix your sleep problems caused by jet lag.