After taking a flight across two or more time zones, you might find yourself craving an omelette in the middle of the night or ready for a good night’s sleep at 9 a.m. Jet lag is caused by the temporary difference between the sleep and wake cycle generated by our internal body clock at home, and the environmental rhythms of our destination's time zone. Our sleep/activity cycle becomes affected, leading to disruptions in our physical and mental functioning.
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Signs and symptoms of jet lag:
- Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling or staying asleep) and sleep fragmentation. You could be at high alert in the middle of the night at your destination, which further disrupts your ability to sleep at the desired local time. Sleep deprivation then ensues. Click here for more on sleep deprivation.
- Excessive daytime sleepiness. You might feel drowsy during periods of the day when you most want to be awake.
- Reduced mental or physical performance. Having trouble thinking, concentrating, reasoning or doing normal activities are common with jet lag. Motor vehicle accidents is the number one killer of travellers, so it’s important to be aware of your impaired performance when behind the wheel.
- Gastrointestinal problems. Conditions on the plane may contribute to abdominal discomfort and constipation. The lowered cabin pressure makes gas in the gut expand, potentially leading to feeling bloated.
- Generalized malaise. It’s common to feel sick, weak, fatigued or have less energy than normal. Headaches and irritability are also known to occur.
Not all these symptoms are present in every case of jet lag, and people may vary in their susceptibility to them. The more times zones you cross, the more likely you are to get jet lag; and the further you are from home, the longer it takes to get over it. While jet lag affects all age groups, older adults may have less pronounced symptoms and recover more slowly compared with younger individuals. Once you’re home, expect it to take several days to adjust to the new time zone. Readjustment and resynchronization occur at a rate of about one hour per day after eastward travel and 1.5 hours per day after westward travel. Pre-existing sleep deprivation, stress, poor sleep habits, and the flight conditions may predispose you to more severe jet lag.
Try the following seven tricks to help mitigate and reduce the effects:
- When possible, choose daytime flights to minimize loss of sleep and fatigue
- Avoid large fatty meals, caffeine and alcoholduring the flight
- Drink lots of water
- Stay up until it’s dark once you arrive to your destination. Exposure to bright morning light can also helpyour body adjust to the new time zone. Bright light is more effective than ordinary indoor light. Resist the temptation to sleep during daytime hours for thefirst few days at destination, as this will decrease theability to sleep at night and prolong the adjustment cycle
- Eat meals at mealtime in the new time zone
- Get lots of exercise, but not right before you plan to go to sleep
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Some reports suggest that taking melatonin can help your body adjust to a new time zone. As a hormone that is naturally made by a gland in the brain, melatonin aligns sleep cycles and other physiological functions. The usual dose is two or three milligrams after dark each night, about half an hour before bedtime in the new time zone. It can be taken for up to four nights in the new time zone; after that, it likely won’t be needed. Ensure that you check with your doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist that it is safe for you to take melatonin. There are other prescription medications that may help with sleep issues associated with travel.
A WORD OF CAUTION: Melatonin can produce sleepiness and reduced alertness. Persons taking melatonin should not drive, operate heavy machinery, or perform tasks requiring alertness for four to five hours after taking melatonin. The timing of the dose of melatonin needs to be precise to avoid worsening the jet lag symptoms. The body normally has a cycle in which melatonin is secreted during the hours of darkness and inhibited during the hours of light; it reaches peak blood levels at around 2:00 am. When crossing time zones, this peak needs to be adjusted (shifted) so that it always peaks at this time of the night.
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