Jet lag is a combination of symptoms, predominantly fatigue, caused by travelling abruptly across different time zones. Travelling to a different time zone disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm which is made up of bodily processes including temperature, hormones, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure. Lack of sleep before and during travelling can also contribute to jet lag. There is no cure for jet lag, but its effects can be reduced with careful planning. For example, did you know that jet lag is worse when you fly east? And melatonin supplements can reduce the dreaded effects of jet lag when you arrive at your destination.
Jet lag is worse when you fly east
Your circadian rhythm (body clock) is less confused if you travel westward. This is because travelling west ‘prolongs’ the body clock’s experience of its normal day-night cycle (the normal tendency of the body clock in most of us is slightly longer than 24 hours). Travelling eastwards, however, runs in direct opposition to the body clock. If you suffer badly from jet lag, it may be worthwhile considering a westerly travel route if possible.
Strategies to reduce the impact of jet lag
There is no evidence that popular strategies, such as fasting or eating complicated diets, have any effect. Suggestions to reduce the impact of jet lag while travelling include:
• Make sure you have had enough sleep before you leave. Sleep deficit or ‘debt’ will make jet lag worse.
• If you are flying westward, try to go to sleep as late as possible for two to three days before you leave. This will make it easier to adapt to the new location. For example, if you are flying from Melbourne to London, try to go to sleep at 1–2am for the two to three days before flying out from Melbourne.
Tips for the flight:
• Limit or avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
• Drink plenty of water.
• Try to nap whenever you feel sleepy.
• Eat small meals frequently, choosing lighter foods like fruit and vegetables.
• Wear loose, comfortable clothing.
• Whenever possible, walk around the cabin.
• When you sleep on the plane, try to plan sleep as if the time is that of the destination.
• Wear earplugs.
• Wear an eye mask.
• Maximise comfort with a pillow supporting your neck and head.
Adjusting to the new time zone
The internal body clock of a jet-lagged traveller is out of synchronisation 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.
Sleep and your 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. The stimulus to reset the clock is light entering the eyes, especially the blue spectrum of light.
• Drink caffeinated drinks in moderation during the day.
• Avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks for a few hours prior to sleep at night.
• Try to mimic your usual bedtime routine.
• Use relaxation techniques.
Alcohol, medications and jet lag
Please note, the use of medication should always be discussed with your doctor.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. One of melatonin's key jobs is controlling the body's circadian rhythm - our internal clock that plays an important role in when we fall asleep and when we wake up.
Melatonin release is tied to the amount of light there is. When it gets dark at night and we turn out the lights, melatonin release is stimulated. Light suppresses melatonin release. When we cross time zones and are suddenly exposed to excessive light when it's normally our bedtime (even a three-hour time difference), our melatonin cycles are disrupted and we experience jet lag until our circadian rhythms adjust to the new environment.
Melatonin supplements are thought to help the body quickly adjust to the new surroundings. There have no long-term studies on the safety of melatonin.
Homeopathic remedies are made from minute dosages of naturally occurring substances. Many homeopathic remedies for jet lag include the following ingredients:
Arnica - sleeplessness and restlessness when over-tired
Bellis perennis - waking mid-sleep and sleep interruptions
Chamomilla - emotional and mental stress, sleeplessness, impatience, intolerance and disorientation
Ipecacuanha - intense and constant nausea
Lycopodium - anxiety, anticipatory fears, apprehension, inability to adapt to new surroundings, digestive problems, especially bloating and gas
Valerian is a herb used as a natural sleep aid. For jet lag, it is used to help adjust to new time zones by helping people fall asleep at their desired time. Unlike other sleep aids, valerian is not believed to be addictive or cause grogginess the next morning.
When it comes to air travel it is recommended to avoid excess alcohol or caffeine, drink plenty of water, and eat light meals.