How to Beat Jet Lag: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

Whether you’re a “Road Warrior” who has piled up thousands of Frequent Flier Miles, or someone who is planning a vacation to a distant locale, you’re likely to experience “jet lag,” which can have a profound effect on your sleep and alertness.

For years, jet lag was considered merely a state of mind. Now, studies have shown that the condition actually results from an imbalance in our body’s natural “biological clock” caused by traveling to different time zones.

Basically, our bodies work on a 24-hour cycle called “circadian rhythms .” These rhythms are measured by the distinct rise and fall of body temperature, plasma levels of certain hormones and other biological conditions. All of these are influenced by our exposure to sunlight and help determine when we sleep and when we wake.

When traveling to a new time zone, our circadian rhythms are slow to adjust and remain on their original biological schedule for several days. This results in our bodies telling us it is time to sleep, when it’s actually the middle of the afternoon, or it makes us want to stay awake when it is late at night. This experience is known as jet lag.

Also, altitude plays a role in how get lagged we feel after a long flight. In general, the higher the altitude, the greater the sleep disruption and jet lag. Generally, sleep disturbance becomes greater at altitudes of 13,200 feet or more. The disturbance is thought to be caused by lower oxygen levels and accompanying changes in respiration. Most people adjust to new altitudes in two to three weeks.

Steps to avoid jet lag

Some simple tweaks before, during and after your flight can help lessen the side effects of jet lag. Book a flight that gets you to your destination in early evening.

  • Try to stay awake until about 10 pm local time. If you feel sleepy during the day, take a short nap (no more than two hours) and set an alarm to make sure you don’t overdo it.
  • Plan ahead for time changes by getting up and going to bed earlier several days prior to an eastward trip and later for a westward trip.
  • Upon boarding the plane, change your watch to local time at your final destination
    Steer clear of booze and caffeine at least three to four hours before bedtime. Both are stimulants that prevent sleep.
  • When you reach your destination, avoid heavy meals. A light snack (as long as it’s not caffeine or alcohol) is fine.
  • Don’t work out or engage in strenuous exercise too close to bedtime (running, vigorous walking, hardcore cycling, spinning, etc.) Yoga, Pilates and stretching is fine and will help relax you while light exercise is fine in the daytime and may help set your internal clock for better sleep.
  • When you start getting sleepy on the plane, wear earplugs and blindfolds to block out unwanted noise and light and tell the stewardess not to disturb you for meals and snacks served during the night.
  • When you reach your destination or between flights, get some sun. Daylight helps regulate your biological clock while indoor air (airports, airplanes, restaurants, subways and trains) only worsens it.
  • Don’t worry about what you eat before a flight. Contrary to popular belief, specific foods have no effect on preventing or minimizing jet lag.

Handling travel related stress conditions

Two common travel related stress conditions are the “First Night Effect” and the “On-Call Effect.” The first condition occurs when trying to sleep in a new or unfamiliar environment like the middle seat of an airplane or a new bed in a hotel room. The second is caused by the nagging fear that something you’re not expecting (an airline stewardess serving you an unwanted meal or a fellow passenger stumbling over you to get to the restroom) might wake you up. To avoid them, try these tips:

  • Bring something from home to make you feel more comfy in a new environment; for instance, a photo of you and your significant or a piece of jewelry that reminds you of home.
  • Find out if your hotel has voice mail service. If they do, have them handle your calls.
  • Check your room for things that could wake you up prematurely, such as light shining through drapes or unwanted maid service. That “Do Not Disturb” card is there for a reason, so use it!
  • Don’t rely on your cell phone or wrist watch to wake you up. Ask for two wake-up calls five or ten minutes apart from each other in case the first call doesn’t wake you up or you drift back to sleep.

How to avoid jet lag

The most common environmental elements affecting sleep are noise, sleep surface, temperature or climate, and altitude. Your age and gender also play a part in determining the level of sleep disturbance caused by these factors.

One study found that women are more easily awakened than men by sonic booms and aircraft noise, while other research indicates that men may be more noise sensitive. Children are generally insensitive to extreme noise levels. However, this high threshold declines with age.

Stop the noise

The most common environmental elements affecting sleep are noise, sleep surface, temperature or climate, and altitude. Your age and gender also play a part in determining the level of sleep disturbance caused by these factors. One study found that women are more easily awakened than men by sonic booms and aircraft noise, while other research indicates that men may be more noise sensitive. Children are generally insensitive to extreme noise levels. However, this high threshold declines with age.

Noises at levels as low as 40 decibels or as high as 70 decibels generally keep us awake. Interestingly, however, the absence of a familiar noise can also disrupt sleep. City dwellers may have trouble falling asleep without the familiar sounds of traffic. Or a traveler may find it difficult to sleep without the familiar tick, tick, tick of the alarm clock at home.

Some noises, although annoying at first, can gradually be ignored, allowing sleep to follow. Studies show people can get used to noises such as city traffic in about one week. However, important noises, like a parent’s baby crying, a smoke alarm or even one’s own name being called, are not easily assimilated and generally snap us awake.

Experts are also studying the ability of certain sounds to induce sleep. “White noise,” such as caused by a fan, air conditioner, or radio static, can often block out unwanted noise and encourage sleep.

Mind your sleep surface

Little research is available and not surprisingly on how much sleeping surfaces affect our slumber. For the most part, we know people sleep better when horizontal and not cramped by space. As with noise, however, women and more mature people appear more sensitive to variations in sleep surfaces.

Find your personal temperature for good sleep

The point at which sleep is disturbed due to temperature or climate conditions varies from person to person. Generally, temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees will awaken people.

Coping with jet lag

Modifying your behavior and taking sleeping pills are both commonly accepted measures used to minimize certain sleep disorders. As mentioned, certain behaviors can help your body better adjust to new time zones and surroundings. Although there are no guarantees to a fast and sound sleep, simple adjustments in your behavior when traveling may help you get the quality of rest needed to start the day refreshed.

  • Sleep Aids: According to NSF’s 2002 Sleep in America  poll, 15% of the respondents reported using either a prescription sleep medication (8%) and/ or an over- the- counter (OTC) sleep aid (10%) to help them sleep at least a few nights a month. While pills do not resolve the biological imbalance caused by jet lag, they may help manage short-term insomnia brought on by travel. Be sure to discuss the use of sleeping pills with your doctor before you try them. Sleep medication can cause side effects.
  • Melatonin: One OTC product receiving a lot of attention lately is melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally secreted hormone in humans that affects the body’s circadian rhythms. There is some evidence that when administered during the day, melatonin increases the tendency to sleep, but at night, the amount of sleep is unaffected. Currently, melatonin is largely available only in health food stores and is not regulated. Therefore, melatonin is, at present, an experimental approach to sleep problems and travelers should consult their physicians before using it.
  • Behavioral: Modifying your behavior and taking sleeping pills are both commonly accepted measures used to minimize certain sleep disorders.

Back from a trip? How to get over jet lag

Traveling for work or pleasure can be fun and interesting, but traveling to a new time zone can result in jet lag. This condition occurs when your circadian rhythms are slow to adjust to the new time zone and remain on their original biological schedule for several days. This results in your body telling you it is time to sleep, when it’s actually the middle of the afternoon, or it makes you want to stay awake when it is late at night.
Here are some tips for minimizing the occurrence of jet lag :

  • Select a flight that allows early evening arrival and stay up until 10 p.m. local time. (If you must sleep during the day, take a short nap in the early afternoon, but no longer than two hours. Set an alarm to be sure not to over sleep.)
  • Avoid alcohol or caffeine at least three to four hours before bedtime. Both act as “stimulants” and prevent sleep.
  • Try to get outside in the sunlight whenever possible. Daylight is a powerful stimulant for regulating the biological clock. (Staying indoors worsens jet lag.)
  • Modifying your behavior can help your body cope and overcome jet lag. Melatonin is an over the counter product that can also help. Learn more about how to cope with jet lag  by creating a sleep friendly environment .
Carole Jacobs
Carole Jacobs

Adventure Travel Writer

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