You’ve planned for weeks and crossed multiple time zones to get here. You’ve dropped your bags off at your accommodation and you want to begin exploring - but your body just isn't having it. You’re about to pass out from being tired even though it’s midday. It's 12:30 but you feel like it's 05:00. You’ve got jet lag.
We’ve all been there, crossing multiple time zones at high speeds will tend to do that to the human body. But just what is jet lag and how can we treat and prevent this medical condition from stealing too much of our valuable time and disrupting our adventures?
Tick tock, the circadian clock
Situated in the hypothalamus part of the brain, the human body has something which is referred to as the circadian clock or circadian rhythm. This ‘clock’ is in control of hormone production, temperature regulation, metabolism, alertness and performance rhythms and - most importantly - the sleep-wake cycle. If you’ve ever woken up minutes before your alarm goes off in the morning - that’s your circadian rhythm, your internal body clock.
Light is the most important factor in the resetting and maintenance of the circadian rhythm.
Through the hypothalamus, light exposure can either improve or worsen jet lag. Jet lag is thus the shifting of the sleep-wake, light-dark cycle too quickly. The 24-hour circadian clock is unable to adjust to these changes as the body crosses multiple time zones at speed.
This often results in fatigue, insomnia, memory and concentration issues and sometimes even digestive issues.
The simplest way to describe jet lag to someone who may not have experienced it before is that it is when your body feels like it's midnight at lunchtime. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to treat, mitigate and prevent jet lag from consigning you to zombiedom.
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Here are some of the best ways to stay fresh and jet lag free:
1. Be more flexible with your schedule at home before you leave
This is relatively straightforward. You really should prepare ahead for any long-haul flight but if you want to do so to avoid jet lag there are a few things to keep in mind. Your rigid schedules may introduce order into your life at home but they’re likely to introduce the opposite when travelling abroad. So loosen up, be flexible and get out of the habit of eating and sleeping at set times - at least for a while. If your body isn’t used to getting fed or sleeping at certain times at home, it will be easier to have to sleep and eat at ‘strange’ times when you’re abroad.
Eat and sleep at unusual times ahead of your trip. Just alter your routine. (Photo: iStock)
2. Make sure you board the plane feeling rested
Those people that go out and party-all-night before a long-haul flight are nuts and shouldn't be taken seriously. Don't be like them. Stay smart and save your partying energies for your destination. Make sure you get a good night’s rest before you get on the plane. Falling asleep on the plane could either be a great thing or bad thing to do if you’re trying to avoid jet lag. You want the choice of doing either. Additionally, getting a good night’s rest will have you better prepared to deal with a bout of jet lag should it arise.
Rest up before you fly (Photo: iStock)
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3. Try to book a flight that arrives during the day
If at all possible, it is infinitely preferable to be on a flight that arrives while the sun is out. Having the sun out definitely helps you fight off the urge to sleep and gets you in the mood to get out exploring.
Try to touchdown when the sun is up (Photo: iStock)
4. Layovers are your friends
Any break in your time zone crossing madness can be a good thing. Stopping over allows for your body to adjust and adapt to the new time-zones. Also, you might be able to save some cash on your airfare.
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Make use of a stopover to acclimatise (Photo: iStock)
5. Chill with the booze
You do not want to be hungover, dehydrated or jet-lagged (or some combination thereof) when in, or coming out of, transit. Alcohol tends to exacerbate altitude sickness and tiredness and can cause dehydration. All you’ll end up doing if you’re lit on the plane is ensure that you feel like crap when you’re wheels down.
Just say no to the sauce (Photo: iStock)
6. Stay away from the Benadryl
Sleeping pills and long-haul flights, a little cheese and a lot of wine, a bag of marshmallows and fire - many things seemingly compliment each other well but leave you feeling gross and remorseful about your choices the next day. This is especially the case with sleep aids if you’re trying to avoid jet lag. If you really must sleep just do it the natural way, drink some chamomile tea or listen to that jungle sounds playlist.
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Sleep aids. Don't do it. (Photo: iStock)
7. Wean yourself off the caffeine
Energy drinks, coffee and sugary drinks are not your friends. They lure you in with their sweet promise of energy and stimulation and then - WHAM - you’re unable to sleep after flying for 18 hours and it’s midnight in Cambodia. You need to be able to sleep when it’s night time at your destination. Chill with the sodas, choose decaf and stay hydrated - drink water.
Drink water not coffee. (Photo: iStock)
8. Get with the times
This is one of the most common ways people begin to acclimatise their bodies for travel and stave off jet lag. Adjust your watch to the local time of your final destination once you’re on your way. This will not only make sure you’re aware of the local time but it also helps you prepare mentally for the time change.
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Adjust your watches to your destination's local time. (Photo: iStock)
9. Keep the blood pumping
Most airlines these days have an emergency booklet or pamphlet detailing what to do in case of emergency but some of them also have pictures of mid-flight exercises you can do to fend off deep vein thrombosis and other travel-related conditions. Exercising mid-flight is a great way to maintain healthy levels of blood and oxygen circulation which can help mitigate the effects of jet lag and help you adapt to the time zone changes with less trouble.
Don't forget to stretch! (Photo: iStock)
10. Fuel up the right way
Make sure you don’t eat a bunch of junk before you fly because that certainly is not going to help. In fact, a good way to prepare for the change in time zone is to start eating your (healthy) meals in line with the meal times at your final destination.
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Eat well, travel easy. (Photo: iStock)
11. Charge up the right way
The same as number 10, but with sleep. If your schedule allows it, try sleeping at the same time that you would at your final destination before you even board the plane. It may be extreme, but it may also be exactly what you need.
Sleeping in line with your destinations night time can help you adjust your circadian rhythm (Photo: iStock)
12. Get an app
There's an app for everything these days, and the battle against jet lag is better off thanks to a particularly good one. Check out Timeshifter. Based on scientific research, the app offers a hyper-personalised regimen of daily activities that you can follow to avoid jet lag. By creating personalised plans based on your sleep pattern, flight plan and other preferences, the app uses simple notifications with tailored advice to ensure that you're doing what you need to do to avoid the lag. The app even works in flight and requires no special equipment.
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Sources: Skyscanner, Timeshifter