Coping with Jet Lag…

By Mary A Drobnak RN BSN MSN Ed

Heading out of China this long National Holiday break? Nurse Mary offers some tips on handling jet lag.

Air travel across timezones has become the norm for those of us living abroad. Many of us will ‘go home’ several times a year, and those of us who are business professionals may fly several times a month or more on lengthy flights to far away destinations. But air flight across timezones causes many of us to suffer a variety of symptoms that are the direct result of our internal body clock or circadian rhythm being disrupted. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as ‘jet lag’.

Jet lag is a temporary disorder that affects adults and children alike, and causes us to experience fatigue, insomnia and also a number of physical and emotional symptoms including bowel changes (constipation or diarrhoea), headaches, anxiety, nausea and dehydration. Some even report heartbeat irregularities and increased susceptibility to illness.

When we travel and are exposed to daylight and darkness earlier or later than our bodies know as usual, our bodies’ internal alarm clock (known as the hypothalamus) may prompt activities that throw us out of sync. The hypothalamus cannot immediately adjust to the hormone melatonin, which is released when the body perceives darkness to stimulate sleep, and withheld when the body perceives light, prompting us to be active. This delay in the release and withholding of melatonin plays a key role in our bodies’ rhythm adjusting to different time zones because it takes several days for the hypothalamus to readjust.

Typically experts say that it will take a day per timezone to fully adjust. Two timezones equals two days, six timezones equals five or six days, and jet lag is usually at its most severe one to two days after landing. Although there is no way to truly prevent jet lag there are many ways to help stave off some symptoms and experience an easier recovery when travelling. 

Be in good physical condition

Being physically fit will enable you to cope with long travel and schedule changes better. Physical exercise, eating right and getting plenty of sleep improves physical stamina, increasing ones ability to adapt easier.

Avoid alcohol and caffeine

Both alcohol and caffeine dehydrate and will disrupt sleeping schedules as well as increase nervousness, anxiety and general discomfort.

Drink water

This should go without saying. Water is most important to consume before, during and after a long flight to prevent dehydration and revitalise your system.

Move around on the plane

Stand up and move around the plane every 1-2 hours. Exercise your legs, arms and neck during a flight while seated. Remaining active will ward off stiffness, decrease swelling and improve blood flow and circulation, making you feel more refreshed and prevent complications that can arise from sitting in one place for a long period of time. 

Wear comfortable shoes and clothes

Throw vanity to the wind; it is more important that you feel comfortable than look good on the airplane. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Avoid heels and tight clothing, and layer clothing to adjust easier if you are going to a climate that will be colder or warmer than where you boarded. Dress for your destination.

Adapt to the local schedule

Probably the most logical advice is to mentally tune in to the new local timezone and adapt to this schedule as soon as you arrive. One strategy is to set your watch to the new local time upon departure, thus beginning the process of mental adaptation. So for example, if you arrive at 6am local time (but midnight your time), attempt to eat breakfast and adjust to the local schedule straight away.

Exposure to sunlight/daylight will allow your body to sync with daytime activities, helping your hypothalamus reset the circadian rhythm faster. Additionally, avoid napping especially during the time that would be normal to be sleeping in your original time zone. Napping will hinder the adjustment of your biological time clock. Try to remain awake until bedtime in your arrival time zone and wake up at the local time in order to transition faster.

Advice for the frequent traveller who stays only a few days in other timezones and returns back to the original timezone often: keep in tune with certain activities from your place of departure, such as eating times. This will help your body remain in sync with your primary schedule (of the original timezone) to avoid some of the physical symptoms associated with jet lag, in particular a change in bowel habits. 

Whether you are a frequent traveller or fly only a few times a year across timezones, jet lag is likely to occur. Remember the best way to be able to cope with jet lag is by being in good physical condition, moving around on the plane, drinking plenty of water, mentally tune in to your new timezone, and once you've landed, adapting to the schedule and exposing yourself to daylight, in order to sync your circadian rhythm faster. Safe travels!

Send Nurse Mary your health questions and concerns at [email protected]

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