jet-lag & transmeridian
ever flown on a vacation to Hong Kong or on business to Europe and wondered why
you're ready for bed at noon or hungry at 3 AM? If so, you've experienced what
many people call "Jet Lag."
Jet lag is caused by travelling at great speeds over many time zones. This
unbalances the "circadian rhythms," or biological lock, which is set by the
pineal gland (a tiny organ in the brain). Eye cells send light and darkness
messages to this gland, which releases melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) in
response to darkness. Thus, abrupt changes in time zones can upset melatonin
production, which ultimately unbalances the body's sleep-wake cycle. These
biological functions, combined with travel-related physical and emotional
stress, cause jet lag.
Common symptoms of jet lag include headaches, irritability, upset stomach,
sleeplessness, gastric discomfort, chills and inability to concentrate. Symptoms
may be worse if you are travelling west to east (away from the sun), because
light helps to preserve the body's equilibrium. Travel from east to west (to an
earlier time zone) results in fewer jet lag symptoms, and travelling northward
or southward does not affect the body's circadian rhythms at all.
Experts say it takes one day for every time zone crossed to recover from jet lag
symptoms. For example, if you cross six time zones, it will take six days to
feel like your old self again. Although there are many methods for minimizing
jet lag, it is impossible to eliminate it entirely.
One suggested method of minimizing jet lag effects is to drink plenty of water
before, during and after the flight. Some doctors recommend that you drink two
eight-ounce glasses of water right before departure. Dehydration is highly
possible during airplane travel, due to dry cabin air. It results in diminished
blood flow to your muscles, reduced kidney functions and fatigue, all of which
induce jet lag. You can prevent dehydration by drinking one liter of water for
every six hours of flight in addition to beverages you drink with meals. Even if
you may not be thirsty, it is important to drink water on a regular basis
throughout the flight, because the body's thirst mechanism does not warn you
early about dehydration.
Researchers are now looking into "light therapy," which is a method of
re-adjusting the body's inner clock by controlling exposure to natural and
artificial full spectrum light. One step in this strategy is to expose yourself
to daylight as soon as possible once you arrive at your destination. Researchers
also advise that you turn on your overhead light during your flight when it is
daylight at your destination and turn off your light, or wear an eyeshade, when
it is night there.
Another recent research strategy suggests melatonin capsules as a possible
method of combating jet lag fatigue. Melatonin is a hormone marketed as a
dietary supplement to assist with sleep and jet lag. Melatonin is a naturally
produced in the pineal gland. Concentrations in the blood vary throughout the
day. Levels are higher during the hours of sleep and lower during the waking
hours. The amount of ambient light seems to control this variation.
Jet lag may be caused by the delay in synchronizing melatonin levels to match
the hours of daylight and darkness after flying across time zones. So possibly
readjusting melatonin levels could help with symptoms and sleep schedules.
Because melatonin is marketed as a dietary supplement, the Food and Drug
Administration has no regulatory control over this product. Manufacturers are
not required to prove the purity of their product or that the amount of drug
stated to be in the product is accurate.
Studies on the use of melatonin for jet lag are promising, but further research
is needed. First, the number of people studied thus far is very small. We don't
know enough about side effects and interactions of the melatonin with other
drugs and medical conditions. More study on the safety of melatonin is needed.
More conventional hypnotic sleeping medication could be used for one or two
doses to regulate the sleep cycle in jet lag. Studies among USAF military pilots
have recently demonstrated benefits for sleep and alertness with the short term
use of the hypnotic zolpidem, marketed as Ambien, prior to desired sleep times.
All medication, whether prescription or not, should be discussed with your
doctor prior to use.
Aside from these interventions, you can take a number of simple steps to improve
your ability to ward off jet lag. Improved Physical conditioning during the two
to three weeks before your trip can help increase your stamina and thereby
reduce the fatigue caused by travel-related stress. And according to reports
from airline crews, it is helpful to take non-stop flights and to schedule your
departing flight in the morning, when you are most ready for a full day's worth
In addition, following a few simple "do's and don'ts" can help:
Don't smoke, drink large amounts of alcohol, or take unnecessary medication
while in flight.
Do get a decent night's sleep before your flight.
Do try to get some sleep during long flights.
Do exercise while on board the plane by stretching, walking about the cabin, and
doing fitness exercises in your chair (like squeezing a tennis ball for seven
counts and then releasing).
Much of the stiffness and the uncomfortable, dazed feeling following a flight is
simply the result of sitting inactively for long periods of time. You may want
to ask airline representatives if they can provide a brochure for in-flight
Finally, limiting your activities the first day after your arrival will yield
more hours of fun and productivity in the end.
With high speed jet travel, the world has certainly become a smaller place.
Incorporating these recommendations into your trip plans should help take the
"lag" out of jet travel.
Have a great trip!