About 94% of people will experience jet lag at some point. If you’re traveling across time zones soon, this could very well be you! Unfortunately, jet lag won’t only make you feel tired and make sleeping difficult, it can also make it harder to perform tasks that require coordination and precision. In addition, it interferes with the brain enough that it can make conditions like bipolar disorder worse.
Fortunately, there are some good ways to fight jet lag. While you probably can’t mitigate its effects entirely, you can definitely lessen their severity.
What Causes Jet Lag?
In order to fight jet lag, it’s important to understand what causes it. Most human bodies are adapted to the 24-hour cycle. They further adapt to periods of sunlight and darkness, based on where they live. This is called the circadian rhythm. It regulates not only when you sleep and when you wake, but also things like blood pressure, muscle effectiveness, and hormone secretion.
When light and darkness come at unexpected times, it takes the body a while to catch up. Even small differences, like what happens twice a year when we go on and off of Daylight Savings Time, can cause tiredness and sleep problems.
Who Suffers from Jet Lag?
Nearly everyone who travels across time zones will suffer some sort of jet lag. Those who travel east will have it worse than those who travel west because traveling east usually makes the day shorter and traveling west makes it longer. Most people who have normal circadian rhythms actually function on a schedule that is slightly longer than 24 hours, so the body is naturally equipped to adjust to a longer day, rather than a shorter one.
Jet lag will also be harder for you if you usually keep to a rigid schedule. If you do shift work, often change your schedule, or go to bed and wake at different times regularly, it will be easier for you to adjust when you travel.
Women often have a harder time with jet lag than men do, because of how estrogen is affected by jet lag. Anxiety, like that which sometimes goes hand in hand with travel, can also make it worse. Drinking alcohol is another culprit, exacerbating the already awful symptoms of jet lag.
How to Beat Jet Lag
- Start adjusting your schedule before you leave. If you know you are going to be traveling, figure out how many time zones you will be changing. In the days before you leave, begin adjusting your schedule. Get up and go to bed an hour earlier or later each night. Reschedule your meals similarly. While you may not want to do this for more than 3 or 4 hours, whatever changes you can make will help you be more adjusted when you arrive at your destination.
- Use flashing lights to adjust your rhythms. Scientists have found that flashing lights help you adjust to a new time zone quicker. You set them up to go off at night because your brain is more sensitive to light then. It will register the light even through closed eyelids, yet you are unlikely to wake. The light makes your brain think that the day is longer. It begins to function as if it were in an awake cycle, even though you are still asleep. If you are traveling from the west coast to the east coast and you usually wake at 7 AM, set up lights to flash in your eyes at 4 AM the day before you leave. This will begin the adjustment process early, so you won’t spend as much time jet lagged. If nothing else, ask your partner to wake and flash a flashlight towards your face several times.
- Take melatonin. This may sound like old news, but scientists have done some work to figure out when you should take this supplement for maximum effectiveness. Use it right around your target bedtime after you travel, and it is likely to help you sleep and to help adjust your circadian rhythm faster than it would adjust without it. A dose of 5mg seems to be the most effective for most people.
- Stay awake until bedtime. When you’re jetlagged and you’ve just gotten off a long flight, it’s easy to decide to take a nap. However, this will only make it harder to adjust to the new time zone. Instead, do whatever it takes to stay up until your normal bedtime in your new location. Try to avoid caffeine, though, as it can actually make it harder for your body to find a new rhythm. Do something fun, take a walk, or do something that requires your full attention, so you don’t fall asleep too early.
Traveling is a blast, but jet lag less so. While most people find that the travel is worth the hassle of getting over jet lag, less lag is always better. Try these techniques to figure out what works for you so you experience as little jet lag as possible. Then get going and enjoy your trip!