What you should know about crossing time zones
Jet lag – it’s a condition most international travelers have experienced at one time or another. To learn more, I attended a presentation led by distinguished experts at The International Society for Travel Medicine’s 2015 bi-annual conference.
What is Jet Lag?
Circadian rhythm — your body’s 24-hour biological clock– is determined by the light-dark cycle of night/day and other cues. Among other things, our circadian rhythm regulates appetite, bowel habits, urine production, and the autonomic nervous system.
Changing three or more time zones can disrupt this rhythm, resulting in jet lag. Symptoms increase with age, when traveling east compared to west, and in relation to the number of time zones crossed.
Know the Symptoms
Common symptoms of jet lag include:
- Disruption of the sleep/wake cycle
- Daytime fatigue
- Reduced alertness
- Loss of appetite
- Reduced cognitive skills
- Increased gastrointestinal problems, especially among travelers with underlying conditions like reflux and IBS
How Long Does It Last?
How long jet lag lasts depends on many factors, including your physical health and the number of time zones crossed. In general, your body can adjust to new time zones at a rate of 1-2 time zones per day.
Coping with Jet Lag
So, how do you cope with jet lag, and lessening its effects? Here is a look at some ways, along with what the experts say about the pros and cons of each.
Adapt to Local Sleeping Time: Adopt local sleep time as soon after arrival as possible.
Change your pre-travel bedtime: You can try adapting before you leave on your trip by going to bed earlier or later, depending on whether you are traveling east or west. However, for many people this can be impractical.
Expose yourself to bright light: Another method is to expose yourself to bright sunlight in the morning (5 – 11 a.m.) by waking up earlier. Conversely, exposure to bright light at night (10 pm – 4 a.m.) delays the body clock and can help you wake up later.
Consider herbal and homeopathic preparations: Just be aware that some experts do not consider these useful.
Sleeping pills: Medications such as Ambien, Zopiclone, or Zolpidem may improve the quality of sleep, but won’t help with the other symptoms of jet lag. They can also cause adverse effects such as confusion, headache, dizziness, nausea, and amnesia. So the benefit may be outweighed by unpleasant side effects.
Melatonin: This hormone has a number of advantages in that there is no withdrawal or hangover. Moreover, it is non-addictive. In fact, a number of studies have favored it over placebo. However, there are also disadvantages. The supplement is not regulated, and adverse effects have not been fully investigated. Also, melatonin can exacerbate rheumatoid arthritis, and should be used in caution with people who have epilepsy or who are on oral anticoagulants. Bottom line: check with your doctor before taking melatonin.
Other Jet Lag Strategies
While there is no high quality evidence to show that any of the following work, here are some basic steps you can adopt that have no harmful effects:
- Don’t have caffeine after midday, as this may affect night sleep.
- Eat right and get plenty of exercise
- Change your schedule
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol
- Drink plenty of water
- Move around on the plane
- Break up trips crossing more than 8 time zones
- Wear comfortable clothing and shoes
What the experts do
Professor Larry Goodyer, an expert on jet lag, copes with the condition by using the following strategy:
- Taking a nap to refresh upon arrival.
- Adapting to the local time and staying awake until bedtime at the destination.
- Taking melatonin every night for 4 nights.