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Jet lag                                May 2009


Jet lag featureThese days more and more of us are leaping onto planes to travel around the world – to see grandchildren in far flung places, to go on holiday, to visit friends.

When we were younger jet lag could be a nuisance; but as we age some people find jet lag a serious problem that can last for days and really interfere with the trip.

Jet lag is caused as the brain struggles to adjust to a new time zone around the world and our sleep patterns become disrupted. The medical term for jet lag is desynchronosis, officially described as a physiological condition which is a consequence of alterations to circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythm refers to the approximate 24 hour cycle in the biochemical, physiological or behavioural processes of living entities including plants and fungi as well as animals and us! Plants and animals don’t regularly leap on planes to travel across the world, although many flowers are now flown in from distant parts. However, I haven’t seen any research on jet lag in flowers.

A lot of research has been done on jet lag in humans, though, and it can definitely help to know a little more about it.

We all have “body clocks” that have grown accustomed to our natural pattern of being awake and asleep; and to our normal experiences of daylight and darkness. These body clocks help to dictate our requirements for eating and sleeping and also affect our hormone regulation and body temperatures.

Bodies adjust to new time schedules at different rates; some people adjust very quickly while others can need several days to accept a different rhythm.

The problem is not caused by the actual length of a flight, so travelling from say London to Cape Town, when the time difference is minimal, should not cause major jet lag problems. The main symptoms occur when you travel east to west or west to east and cross various date lines.

Symptoms of jet lag vary in different people. Serious jet lag can result in nausea, headaches, fatigue, insomnia and a general disorientation. In less severe cases, people can simply experience a general feeling of being “off colour” and being quite tired.

There have been a number of remedies hailed as real solutions over the years, but individuals vary so much that there is no one medication that can guarantee to prevent jet lag.

Some people are convinced that whatever the destination, the key is on arrival to immediately stay away or go to bed, depending on the time there, and try to fit in immediately with the local time clock. The theory can be good, but going to bed when your body is screaming that it is 2 o’clock in the afternoon simply doesn’t work for many of us.

Some advise that a period of general adjustment over a course of several days can work; slowly adjusting your sleep times to the new time zone; but this really is incredibly disruptive for everyone and can also eat into holiday time or time with family.

The NHS has suggested ten ways in which you can help beat jet lag:

Top up your sleep before you travel
Make sure you're fully rested before you travel. If you’re flying overnight and you can get a bit of sleep on the flight, it will help you to stay up all day once you arrive at your destination.

Have a stopover on the way
Including a stopover into your flight will make it easier to adjust to the time change, and you'll be less tired when you arrive. Take advantage of a stopover to have a refreshing shower or swim at the airport hotel.

Plan when to take medication
People who have to take medication at certain times of the day should seek medical advice before travelling. Your GP will be able to tell you what times you should take your medicine when you’re crossing time zones. 

Adjust to your destination as soon as possible
A few days before you travel, start getting up and going to bed earlier (if travelling east) or later (if travelling west). During the flight, try to eat and sleep according to your destination's local time.

Keep hydrated
Dehydration can intensify the effects of jet lag, especially after sitting in a dry aeroplane cabin for many hours. Avoid alcoholic drinks and keep your fluid levels topped up with a cup of juice or water every hour during the journey.

Be active
Try to do a little exercise and light stretching during your flight and your trip. Stretch your legs with a few walks around the cabin, and take advantage of long airport queues to move up and down on tiptoes, exercising your calf muscles.

Allow recovery time
It takes around one day to recover for each time zone you cross and can take up to a week to adjust fully to the time zone of your destination, so take things easy when you arrive.

Natural light
By controlling your exposure to daylight you can trick your brain into beating jet lag more quickly. As soon as you arrive, spend some time outdoors in the daylight if you can. This will help regulate your body clock.

Stay up till 11pm
When you arrive, don’t go straight to bed for a nap, however quick it is. You’ll feel better temporarily, but you’ll only confuse your body clock and delay making the time change. Stay up until 11pm if you can.

If you are really concerned about jet lag, there are a number of medications and also herbal remedies that are gradually coming onto the market and it is worth talking to your own doctor to see if there is something that might work for you. Some say that melatonin really can help jet lag, but research is still coming in on various aspects of this. Again low doses of Viagra (sildenafil) are said to really speed up recovery; but again testing hasn’t yet been completed.

Last year researchers claimed that they were just three years away from putting a jet lag drug on the market, which could reset the body’s natural rhythms.

Until that comes, we will have to battle the problems as best we can with current ideas; either that, or stay at home!

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