Traveling the world is an incredibly enriching experience. You get to experience new cultures, take in beautiful sights, escape your mundane day-to-day and, eventually, return to your everyday life with a refreshing change in perspective. Hopping on a plane for 2-3 hours for your trip is one thing, but traveling through time zones is quite another. If you are planning a trip to a faraway destination, it is highly likely that you will experience the phenomenon known as jet lag.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, jet lag is now classified as a sleep condition that develops from an imbalance in our bodies’ biological clocks, and its effects are real. Our bodies are programmed to sleep and wake according to patterns in our hormones, body temperature and plasma levels that change in response to our exposure to sunlight. When traveling to a new time zone, especially one that is 3, 4, 5 hours ahead or behind of your home time zone, your body clock will tell you it is time to sleep when, really, it is early afternoon. If you are in a time zone that is ahead of your normal time zone, you may be wide awake come bed time.
Poor sleep or chronic fatigue on vacation can be disheartening enough, but changing time zones can also effect other body functions, especially digestion. Just like your body gets in the habit of sleeping and waking at certain times, it also gets accustomed to specific meal and snack times, even if you don’t think you’re that regular with your eating schedule.
None of this is sounding too pleasant, is it? Digestion out of whack, fatigue, lack of focus, and even moodiness/irritability can all accompany you to your new destination. Imagine being on a boat, ready to scuba dive, and all your brain wants to do is sleep. Or, let’s say you have an early tour planned, but your brain simply will not shut off come 10pm. What can you do? Or, the real question is, what should you have done before your trip?
Here are some treatment options and preventative measures to fight off jet lag:
Flight time matters. Choose one that puts you at your destination in the evening. Then, stay up until 10pm local time. If you absolutely have to take a nap, don’t overdo it! Set an alarm so you don’t surpass two hours of shut eye.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol. But not entirely! You don’t have to go without alcohol or caffeine on your vacation, but you should cut them out within a few hours of bedtime. Both can affect your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and even the quality of your sleep. You don’t need to mess with your body’s sleep schedule more than your travel already has.
Change your sleep pattern beforehand. This is a big one. In the week leading up to your trip, start adjusting your bedtime (and wake time!) to get closer and closer to your new time zone. That way, when you arrive, you are already basically adjusted.
Skip the big meal upon arrival. To help your digestive system come around, try not to eat a huge meal as soon as the wheels touch down. Allow your bodily functions (sleep and digestion) to adjust on their own, and don’t give your body more work to do as it is trying to sort itself out.
Revel in the sunshine. Daylight has a major effect on your body clock. To help your body and mind adjust to the daytime hours, go outside! It’ll wake you up and show your brain that it is daytime, not nighttime like it was used to.
All in all, your body make take up to one week to adjust to its new location. If you plan ahead, you may adjust sooner. The most important part is to expect an adjustment period, and to not let it interfere too much with your vacation! See the world, and have fun!
Best of health,
Dr. Chad M. Hoffman