How to Combat Jet Lag

Jet lag.  Nearly every traveller dreads it and very few escape it.

We’ve all heard various tips on how to combat jet lag but which ones actually work and which are just wishful thinking?

Unfortunately there is no magic cure for jet lag – it is the price we pay for travelling.  Whilst there is no cure, there are some things which actually do help to minimise the effect.

So, before we look at how to outsmart it, what is jet lag and what causes it?

Most people associate jet lag with feeling lethargic, generally off-colour and uncomfortable.  Some people liken the symptoms to a case of the flu but others report a combination of symptoms such as fatigue, headache, dehydration, interrupted sleep, irritability, aches and pains.  Scientists generally associate jet lag with disruption to the body’s circadian rhythm due to time-zone changes but this is far from the complete picture.  Many other factors contribute to jet lag.  For instance:

1.   Ambient environment

We all know that cabin air is recycled.  The recirculation of dry air increases the likelihood of passengers becoming dehydrated and this can lead to headaches, sore throats and gastrointestinal disturbance.    Cabin pressure is different to normal air pressure and contains less oxygen.  This causes other jet lag symptoms such as fatigue, impaired mental function, bloating and swollen joints.

2.  Physical environment

Airline seating is rarely comfortable and somewhat cramped.  It is often difficult to move around the cabin and many travellers fall victim to sitting in one position for the entire flight.  This constricts circulation and adds to jet lag symptoms.

3. Mental and emotional condition

For many people flying is stressful.  If it is not the process is getting ready to travel which has caused untold stress, it may be the actual flying experience which causes anxiety.  Whatever has caused you to feel stressed or anxious before and / or during the flight will add to your physical and mental fatigue.  Recent studies have found that the more rigid you are with your normal routine, the greater the intensity of jet lag experienced.  It is for this reason children and babies seem less affected by jet lag.

4. Food and beverage consumption

Surprise!   Eating heavy meals places a burden on your digestive system when you are not particularly active and drinking a few too many tipples will only up the ante.  Alcohol and caffeinated drinks are dehydrating in normal conditions but consume them in a pressurised dry-air cabin and you are asking for trouble.

5. Radiation

This is subject to much debate but some scientists argue that at high altitude, there is less atmosphere to protect you from radiation.  According to the theory, cosmic and gamma rays can exacerbate jet lag.  In fact, some studies have shown that cosmic radiation can damage human cells and suppress the immune system.

You can’t avoid dry air recirculation or cabin pressure and unless you can fork out for a First Class ticket, it is unlikely you can avoid the discomfort of travelling like a sardine.  So what can you do to minimise the severity of jet lag?

  • Stay hydrated.  This means drinking as much water as possible and minimising alcohol and caffeine consumption.  Do this before you fly, during the flight and also after you reach your destination.
  • Rest up well before the flight and try to minimise stress and anxiety about the trip.  If you are well prepared for travel, you will fly better and minimise mental fatigue.
  • Treat yourself to home comforts where you can – pack a neck pillow, your favourite slippers, ear plugs, creamy moisturiser and facial mist.  Take a good book and stock your iPod full of feel-good tracks.
  • Move, move, move.  Get up and stretch before you fly, while flying and also to unkink yourself once you’ve landed.  Do the exercises the In-Flight magazine recommends – anything to keep the blood moving and your joints supple.
  • Cut the trip into smaller flight sectors if possible – why not enjoy a stopover?
  • If travelling long distance, adjust your schedule and set your watch to the time zone of your destination.  Start to tailor your activity to the new time zone as soon as possible.
  • Flying east to west can help some travellers.  This is because flying the other way causes the traveller to “lose” time and this pushes meals, sleep and bowel habits ahead by the number of hours flown.  Similarly, flying north or south in the same time zone also helps because the time of day remains the same at the destination.
  • Consider melatonin.  This is a controversial treatment as it involves manipulation of a hormone which controls the sleep cycle.  It’s not for everyone and some studies have shown taking melatonin can actually intensify jet lag.
  • Do not take sleeping pills – this causes you to enter a comatose state with little or no natural movement and studies have linked use of sleeping pills to increased incidence of DVT.
  • Try natural light therapy.  If you’ve flown west, expose yourself to bright morning light as soon as possible and avoid evening light exposure.  If you’ve flown east avoid early morning light and get as much afternoon / evening light as you can.

At the end of the day, jet lag is a fact of modern air travel and the best method for treating it is to just tough it out.  NASA studies have found that for every time zone crossed, one full day is required for your body to regain its natural rhythm and energy level.  Be kind to yourself – jet lag will pass and your body will recover.

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