Jet lag is a form of short term insomnia that can affect anyone, from seasoned travellers to pilots. The key to beating jet lag is not to take medication like many companies would like you to believe, but to understand the nature of jet lag so you can take control of the very factors that cause it.
If you’re in the process of planning a trip and you’re worried about getting jet lag, I’ll show you how you can completely avoid it.
Suffering from jet lag right now? No problem. At the bottom half of this article I’ll share some simple but effective methods to cure your jet lag as quickly as possible.
I’ll begin by covering the causes of jet lag and its symptoms.
Causes of Jet lag
Jet lag is caused by a number of factors, including:
Travelling across time zones
Essentially, the more time zones you travel across, the greater the effect of jet lag. If you travel east, you’ll lose an hour and if you travel west you’ll gain an hour for each time zone travelled across.
Most people find jet lag worse travelling east and better travelling west. This is because most people find it easier to stay up a few hours later rather than fall asleep a few hours earlier, but this can be down to personal preference. Travelling east would usually have the worst effect on teenagers since their body clock tends to get naturally pushed forward, so they go to bed later and wake up later. For older people the opposite tends to happen.
For more on time zones, take a look at the Wikipedia time zones article.
Body clock mismatch
The sudden change of time creates havoc for your body clock, which relies on regular, consistent sleep and wake times.
Your body clock uses events such as meal times and the amount of daylight entering your eyes as clues to the time of day, so it knows when it is time to sleep and when it is time to wake up. Since these events are now at different times, your body clock can get thrown off course so it no longer knows the time of day and when it should prepare your body for sleep.
While you might be in a different time zone physically, your body clock will be operating at your home time zone. And since now its natural clues to the time of day like meal times, daylight, sleep and wake times are different, it can get confused so that you can no longer sleep even at the time you regularly fall asleep at home.
Lack of Oxygen
While you’re in an aircraft, you’re in an atmosphere with 20 to 25 per cent less oxygen than what you’re used to on the ground.
The lack of oxygen in the air causes the oxygen levels in your blood to reduce. This impacts your physical and mental abilities making you feel foggy, drowsy and sleepy.
Unable to sleep on the flight
Just because you’re on the aircraft at the time you’re usually in bed, don’t count on being able to fall asleep as easily.
I learnt this lesson the hard way, thinking I’ll be able to sleep on an over night coach from Birmingham to Edinburgh. I managed to sleep around 2 to 3 hours, despite feeling completely exhausted before the journey. As soon as I got to my hotel room mid morning, I collapsed on the bed and slept a full 8 hours, waking up sometime in the evening. So I essentially got jet lag in the same time zone!
Whether it’s the lack of comfort, the noise, vibrations, excitement or watching your coach nearly get wiped out by a garbage lorry (yes that very nearly happened), sticking to sleep times while travelling can be a very hard feat. Trying to get some sleep at an airport while waiting for a connecting flight can be equally as hard.
Early morning flights
More and more flights seem to be scheduled for early in the morning. And considering you need to travel to the airport and arrive 2 hours early, your sleep pattern can be messed up even before you’ve left the ground by having to get up at what seems like the middle of the night.
This can be an advantage if you’re travelling west, since you’ll be able to get to sleep at the earlier time much easier. But it can be particularly gruelling if you’re gaining hours travelling west, lengthening the time you should stay up before going to bed.
Jet lag Symptoms
Jet lag comes with two main symptoms. The first is sleep deprivation and the second is illness and discomfort.
Sleep deprivation is easily the most recognised jet lag symptom.
Sleep deprivation from a lack of sleep is caused by reduced quantity of sleep and reduced quality of sleep. Jet lag often causes both of these.
You’re unlikely to have the same amount of sleep you normally have at home due to an uncomfortable sleep environment and because of the body clock mismatch mentioned in the causes above, preventing the onset of sleep.
And you’re unlikely to receive the same quality of sleep because many people are unable to completely relax in an aircraft, so when you do finally fall asleep, you’re likely to only enter the lighter stages of sleep, so sleep becomes much less refreshing.
Sleep deprivation causes you to become sleepy and disoriented. Anything that requires effort or skill becomes much harder to handle, with tempers easily triggered. If your sleep pattern doesn’t get back on track soon, it can continue and develop into long term insomnia. For a more detailed overview of the effects of sleep deprivation, take a look at the sleep deprivation article.
Illness and discomfort
Sitting in the same cramped place for hours on end can be seriously discomforting. And as mentioned above, the lack of oxygen really doesn’t make things better. The dry air on board can give you headaches and dehydrate your skin, sometimes causing soreness and irritation.
Your immune system often isn’t working to its best while you’re flying due to the stress or excitement of travel. To make things worse, because the air on board is recycled through the air vents, you’re intensely exposed to all the bugs and illnesses your fellow passengers may be carrying. So unsurprisingly, it’s quite common to become ill after a flight.
How to Avoid Jet Lag – Steps to take before your flight
With a bit of planning before your trip, the effects of jet lag can be much reduced, and sometimes completely avoided. In this section we’ll cover what you can do before your trip to avoid jet lag.
If you’re only going away for a couple of days, consider sticking to your old sleep pattern at home.
For this to work, you must keep to the same mealtimes, bed times and wake times as you would as if you were at home. If possible, expose yourself to the same light conditions as you would normally at home. For example, don’t keep in darkness if it’s daylight at home and don’t expose yourself to the daylight if it’s dark at home. A light box may be particularly useful for this.
It can be pretty tough to do, since you’re ultimately trying to hide from your body the fact you’ve changed time zones. But if you can do it, you can completely avoid jet lag.
Your chances of succeeding depends on your situation. If you’re in New York, you should have no problem finding places to eat and things to do even at 4am with their 24 hour culture. But the same can’t be said for a small Caribbean island. Social interactions may also be harder since it would be considered completely normal to hold a meeting at 4am home time if it’s 10am local time.
Another method of avoiding jet lag is to slowly adjust your sleep schedule by an hour or two each night to gradually transition yourself from one time zone to another.
This would mean changing your mealtimes and bed times each day, with a large enough change to make progress but small enough for your body clock not to put up a fuss.
You may not be able to adjust completely to your new time zone, but anything is better than nothing.
This method requires careful planning and a bit of flexibility but it can help to bypass jet lag completely.
Be prepared to sleep in some awkward places
If you’re traveling across many times zones, at some point during your journey you’re probably going to have to get some sleep. Whether that be on the flight or at the airport whist waiting for a connecting flight. Unless you’re fortunate enough to travel first class, you’ll know all too well that airports or airplanes are clearly not designed with sleep in mind.
Sleeping upright in your seat on the flight or on the hard floor of the airport is never easy. But sleep can be made a lot more attainable by using travel accessories such as ear plugs, eye masks and neck pillows. The sleep aid reviews section of this website reviews a range of sleep aids that are suitable for traveling and gives tips on how to choose the best ones.
Take a read of the article sleeping in airports for top practical advice from seasoned travelers on how to get some sleep in busy airports.
Be physically up for it
Get good nights sleep before the flight. It’s the very least you could do. Make sure you’re not tired or hung over from the night before, especially for early morning flights.
Try to get in plenty of exercise the day before so you’re nicely worn out and relaxed on the flight and not bursting with energy from the stress of traveling.
Jet lag Cures – How to get rid of jet lag as fast as possible
In this section we’ll discuss what you can do on the flight and when you arrive in your new destination to quickly overcome the effects of jet lag.
These jet lag remedies are best used in conjunction with the methods above on how to avoid jet lag, but they can also be used independently.
Keep well hydrated
Dehydration makes the effect of sleep deprivation much worse so make sure you drink plenty of fluids. This can also help counteract the effects of the dry air and helps keep your immune system in good shape against the airborne germs from your fellow passengers circulating in the air.
This doesn’t apply for alcoholic drinks though! Alcohol has the opposite effect and actually increases dehydration by encouraging your body to loose water (by making you go to the toilet more often). It also has 2-3 times the effect in the air as it does on the ground. So while it can be a great source of entertainment on a boring flight, it’s best to save it for after.
Tea and coffee have higher than usual caffeine levels on flights for added taste so make sure you don’t drink too much if you plan on sleeping any time soon.
Get off the plane where possible at ground stops and try to get active again. Take a walk around the terminal, take a look around the duty free shops, go for a stroll outside, anything that gets you moving.
If you get the opportunity, take a shower on the ground stop. It’ll help freshen you up, tone the muscles and get the blood pumping around your body again.
Have the right mindset
Having the right mindset can help with many things in life, and sleep and jet lag are no exception.
You’ll find it much easier to sleep on, or right after the flight with the right mindset for sleep. Travelling can be a stressful experience, but by staying as calm and relaxed as possible, you’ll find it easier to fall asleep.
A large portion of jet lag is psychological. If you think you’re going to suffer with jet lag, you probably will. Hypnosis Downloads offers a Overcome Jet lag hypnosis session that you can listen while in the air and at your destination to help you quickly overcome any psychological causes of jet lag and help you relax.
Set your body clock
If you’re not sticking to your old time zone, the sooner you’re able to adjust to your new time zone, the sooner you can enjoy yourself on holiday or be mentally ready for your business trip.
This means sleeping when it’s night time at your destination and staying awake when it would be daytime. It’s best to avoid naps if you can.
An eye mask to block out the light, ear plugs to reduce the sound, and neck rests and blow up pillows for comfort can all help your chances in getting some sleep during the flight. All of these can be available quite cheaply, particularly online.
Along with sleeping and waking at the new times, you should also start eating at your new times. Try to stick to these the best you can. You don’t need to eat anything big if you’re not feeling hungry, just a small snack will have the same effect. Aeroplane food is often served at a schedule to match the time zone you’ve just left so it’s best to bring or own food or if possible save the aeroplane food for later on the flight.
Eating and sleeping are two of your body clocks main indicators of time. Get these pushed forward or back and you’ll be well on your way.
Exposure to sunlight is the final main factor for your body clock. Other than opening and closing the window shutters, you can’t really control this on the flight. But when you get to your destination, expose yourself to plenty of sunlight during the day and avoid bright lights during the night.
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There are plenty of ways to help reduce the effects of jet lag and sometimes even avoid it completely. Jet lag needn’t be something you just have to put up with. The sooner you can overcome jet lag, the sooner you can enjoy your trip.