Anticipating Jetlag

It’s 8pm and I’ve just woken up in one of the world’s great cities and I’m ready for breakfast.  Surely in London – the largest urban zone in the European Union – you can  find breakfast no matter what time of the day or night.  I pull back the thick curtains in my hotel room to reveal a dark, tree-lined  street.  It seems I’m suffering from desynchronosis, more commonly known as  jetlag.

According to the Medical Dictionary, jetlag is a physiological condition that  results from alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms.  Symptoms include fatigue, sleepiness, digestive upsets, impaired judgment,  memory lapses and irritability.  Jetlag can be more severe when travelling in an easterly direction and  roughly has a recovery rate of one day per time zone crossed.  As I have flown from Sydney to London – from east to west – I have traversed  ten standard time zones.  At this rate my holiday will be over before my jetlag is cured. 

It seems it went wrong when I blatantly disregarded one of the golden rules  for avoiding jetlag.  “Upon arrival adapt to the local time. Under no circumstances attempt a  daytime nap,” the Better Health website says.  After arriving in London from Sydney at 6am, I did a spot of sightseeing until I could check in to the hotel at 2pm.  Once in the room I had a shower, drew the curtains and lay down on the bed  for a few minutes.  But before I could say “Welcome to England” I was fast asleep.  Six hours later a knock on the door has woken me.

“Guest services, may I come in,” a woman says from outside my room.  “Hello madam, oh sorry… I see you are sleeping, I’m from housekeeping,  would you like the turn down service?” the lady whose badge reads Jekesa says.  Confused, I wonder why would I need the bedspread turned down and a chocolate  left on the pillow when I’m about to go for breakfast.  “Madam, it is not 8am, it’s 8pm,” Jekesa says after seeing my puzzled  face.  Like most B&Bs, this establishment only serves breakfast – and that is  not until 7am.

I peer out the curtain again into the darkness.  Am I brave enough to wander this sprawling capital of England in the middle  of the night to fulfil my craving for eggs on toast?  Is it sensible to meander the streets alone, with a map in hand in the  dark?  Probably not.

I decide to sit tight and wait until morning.  I switch on the television and watch re-runs of Coronation Street.  This is not how I imagined my holiday when I was doing my research on the Visit Britain website.  It rolls on to 2am and I’m still awake.  Several hours later, when I hear the cook arrive and enter the kitchen  downstairs, I decide to put my head down for a quick nap.

And that is a whole other story.

by Leah McLennan

Seeing as all of my trips have been to destinations throughout Asia which are more or less on the same time line as my own country, the one thing I haven’t come across yet, is the phenomenon known as jetlag.  I’ve heard numerous stories like the one above, travellers spending hours and hours unable to sleep or get back into a proper routine.  So I started thinking – what exactly is jetlag, what are all the effects and how, if at all possible, can you avoid it?

And luckily for me, searching jetlag on the internet leads you to a wealth of information on the subject.

What is it?

Jetlag is a physical reaction to a rapid change in time zones.  It affects most travellers, including seasoned fliers like flight attendants and pilots.  It’s a combination of fatigue and other symptoms caused by travelling abruptly across different time zones.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms include disorientation, irritability, fatigue, swollen limbs and eyes, headaches, cold-like symptoms, impaired judgement and decision making, memory lapses, apathy and irregular bowels.

Dehydration, unfamiliar foods, cramped spaces, recycled air, lack of sleep, uncomfortable clothes, continual low-level noise, connections that disrupt sleep and other factors all add to the misery of jetlag.  If you live by a regular schedule (up at 7 am, in bed by 10 pm every night), watch out.  Jetlag hits those with rigid body clocks the hardest.  Oh great!

A general rule of thumb to keep in mind before any long trip is the 1:1 ratio: allow yourself one day to recover for every hour of time difference that you experience.  I’m not quite sure how this will make for an enjoyable holiday when you only have a short time at your destination, so I’m very keen to find out how to try and beat this monster.  Fortunately it seems that whilst there is no cure for jetlag, its effects can be reduced with careful planning.

Does Flying East or West make a Difference?

Your circadian rhythm is less confused if you travel westward.  This is because travelling west ‘prolongs’ the body clock’s experience of its normal day-night cycle.  Travelling eastwards, however, runs in direct opposition to the body clock.  If you suffer badly from jetlag, it may be worthwhile considering a westerly travel route if possible.

How to Manage Jetlag

  • Treat your body well before you fly – exercise, sleep well, stay hydrated and sober.  Don’t get on a long-haul flight with a hangover.
  • Some travellers like to exercise before they go to the airport – this can help you sleep better on the plane.  Once you’re at the airport, avoid the escalators and moving sidewalks.  Instead, walk and take the stairs on the way to your check-in area and gate connections.
  • Three or four days before you leave, start to stay up a little later than usual, and sleep in a little longer.
  • Wear two watches, one set to the current time, and one to the time at your destination  This can help you prepare yourself mentally for the coming time change.
  • During the flight stay hydrated by drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids.
  • Get up out of your seat at regular intervals to walk and stretch.  Do exercises like toe raises, isometric exercises, stomach crunches and shoulder shrugs right in your seat.  This keeps your blood flowing and prevents it from pooling at your extremities, a common phenomenon in pressurized cabins.
  • Get up to wash your face, brush your teeth or just stand up for several minutes.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing that breathes.
  • Bring a neck pillow, eye mask, ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Avoid snug footwear as it is quite possible that your feet will swell in transit.
  • Try the homeopathic remedy “No-Jet-Lag”.  The company claims the chewable tablets address all jet lag symptoms, and offers testimonials from flight attendants and other frequent fliers.
  • A bag of dried cherries is another natural remedy that some travellers use.  In 2007, the New York Times reported that dried cherries, which contain melatonin, may help alleviate jet lag.
  • Use sleeping pills, antihistamines and motion sickness pills to induce sleep.
  • Light therapy has become a popular treatment for jet lag.  There’s even a light therapy app for smartphones, Jet Lag Fighter, which recommends when to seek and avoid light based on your travel dates and destination.
  • Try the “jet lag diet” which is described below.  The military tested the diet and concluded that it is bunk.  Nonetheless, Ronald and Nancy Reagan used it during their White House days, and some travellers still do.
  • Restrict your diet to foods that are easily digested, like those that are relatively high in fibre but not too rich.  If you’re trying to stay awake in order to get your body in step with the local time zone, caffeine can be useful — but don’t go overboard.  While it might seem tempting to guzzle several cups of coffee when your eyelids begin to droop, you could end up wide awake at 1 am.  Be sure to implement all dietary changes in moderation.
  • Arrive early afternoon and plan a half day of touring, then dinner at the local dinnertime.  Fight the urge to rest after the flight because that does not allow the body clock to reset.   Don’t drink coffee and only have 1 bottle of wine with dinner.
  • Lots of juice.  Try to check into the hotel and take a 1-1/2-hr. nap — no more.  Then get up, and take a walking tour.
  • Change the time on your watch upon take off.
  • NO FOOD OR ALCOHOL on the plane — eat before you get on and only drink water.

Adjusting to the new time zone

The internal body clock of a jetlagged traveller is out of sync with the new time zone and is still operating on ‘home time’.  Different bodily processes adjust to the new time zone at different speeds, which adds to the confusion. Depending on the individual, the body needs anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to acclimatise to the new time zone.

Suggestions on adjusting to your new time zone include:

  • Expose yourself to daylight or, if this is not possible, bright light to help ‘reset’ your body clock.
  • Drink caffeinated drinks in moderation during the day.
  • Try to mimic your usual bedtime routine.
  • Use relaxation techniques.

A Battle Plan for Jet Lag

1. Understand that the direction you are traveling makes a difference.

Determine whether you are traveling east or west.  Most people have an internal body clock that makes it harder for them to travel east.  If you’re traveling east and want to adapt to the new time, you will have to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier than you normally would.  This is known as advancing your body clock.  If you’re traveling west, you’ll have to adapt to the new time by waking up later than usual and going to bed later than usual, delaying your body clock.

2. Schedule when to expose yourself to light and when to avoid it.

It takes about a day to shift one time zone.  To do it faster, you must regulate your exposure to light — both natural and artificial — and darkness.  Experts say that since light is the primary environmental cue telling your body’s clock when to sleep and when to wake, controlling jetlag is fundamentally about controlling light and darkness.

With that in mind, if you are traveling east, you must expose yourself to light early, advancing your body clock so that it will be in sync with the new time zone.

If traveling west, you should expose yourself to light at dusk and the early part of the evening, delaying your body clock so that it will be in sync with the new time zone.  Let’s say that at 7 pm you board a plane in New York that is scheduled to arrive in London at 7 am local time (when it’s 2 am in New York).  You’re traveling east, which means you need to advance your internal clock toward London time.  To do that, avoid any kind of light during the flight because the exposure will delay your body clock rather than advance it.  An obvious way to accomplish this is to wear sunglasses in the plane.

Typically, when travellers arrive in London at 7 am they attempt to get on the new time zone right away which is exactly the wrong thing to do because your internal clock is still set to New York time, and trying to adjust too quickly will only exhaust you.  You need to do is to ease yourself into the new time zone by consciously manipulating your exposure to light.  So keep those sunglasses on.

If you are able to sleep during the flight, even better.

Now, if you were to take a morning flight instead of an evening flight to London from New York, you would want to expose yourself to light throughout the flight (no need for sunglasses), as well as when you land in London, soaking up as much sun as possible all day.

3. Survive the first night by eating right and preparing the hotel room for a good night’s sleep.

Whatever you do on your first day, remember that the things capable of upsetting your body when you’re at home can be even more troublesome when traveling.   Some of us know that alcohol may help when it comes to falling asleep but that it can interrupt later stages of sleep, which would only exacerbate jetlag.  Large or spicy meals should also be avoided in the evening at your destination because the body is not as efficient at metabolizing food at that time.

At night (and for each night of your London trip) about an hour or so before bed, keep the lights in your room as dim as possible.  Close blinds or curtains and cover any light from a clock, computer, television, even your smartphone, because light can make you more alert and reset your internal clock to the wrong time, making you think the day has begun.

9 Tips for Overcoming Jet Lag

For the traveller who doesn’t want to miss a minute of sightseeing, jetlag is a nuisance.  However, you don’t have to waste part of your trip readjusting if you are willing to eat and drink according to a formula devised by Dr. Charles F. Ehret.  He found that you can greatly reduce or even eliminate entirely the symptoms of jetlag if you use his diet to reset your internal clock in advance of your departure.

‘Tens of thousands’ of people have tried his anti jetlag diet and nearly all have found it to be highly effective.  The plan combines a number of synchronizers of body rhythms, in a way that he says enables the body to make abrupt shifts in its natural cycles.  This includes caffeine and related chemicals, size and contents of meals, alcohol, light, exercise and social factors.

The number of time zones you plan to cross determines how many days in advance of your departure you should follow his scheme.  The system, which basically alternates feast and fast and ends with a high protein breakfast, goes like this:

  1. Determine when breakfast time will be at your destination.
  2. Starting four days before the day you are to arrive, drink no coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks or alcohol except between 3 and 5 pm.  Eat all meals at the regular times.
  3. The first day is a feast day: Eat a hearty high-protein breakfast and lunch (eggs, cheese, meats, high-protein cereal, cooked dried beans or peas) and a high carbohydrate dinner (pasta, pancakes, potatoes, rice, bread, sweet dessert) that contains no high-protein food.
  4. On day two, follow a modified fast: Eat light meals of salads, thin soups, fruits and juices.  Keep carbohydrates, fats and calories to a minimum.
  5. On day three, repeat the feast day.
  6. On day four (departure day), repeat the fast day.  If you are traveling eastward, consume caffeinated beverages (if you drink them at all) only between the hours of 6 and 11 pm.  If you are traveling westward, consume caffeinated drinks only in the morning.  Drink no alcoholic beverages on the plane.
  7. Break your ”fast” by having a high-protein breakfast at the predetermined breakfast time in your destination city. Dr. Ehret suggests ordering a special meal before your departure or asking the flight attendant to save your dinner or, failing that, bring along an appropriate breakfast.  Before breakfast, sleep if you can, but no later than that preset time.  After breakfast, stay awake and active.  Leave your reading light on.  You might try some isometric exercises in the aisle or lavatory or in your seat.  Eat the rest of your meals that day according to mealtimes at your destination.  If possible, eat with other people (don’t call room service and eat alone in your room) since social interaction stimulates wakefulness.

The high-protein meals, exercises and light are intended to stimulate the body’s active cycle.  The high-carbohydrate meals stimulate sleep.  The modified fasts help to deplete the liver’s store of glycogen (a main muscle fuel) and prepare the body’s clock for resetting.  Caffeine and its chemical relatives can cause your biological rhythms to shift forward or backward, depending on the time they are consumed.   And voila!

So that appears to be all the information laid out for me now and all that’s left is for me to work out exactly which of these tips I’m going to try and use to make sure my time abroad is spent how I want it to be spent – enjoying my travels – and not wandering around like a zombie!