Jet Lag – What it is and how to cope with it

Jet lag is when your body’s sleep cycles are still attuned to your home location, but they are out of phase with the region that you are now visiting.  The symptoms?  They differ by individual but are generally the same as you would normally experience if you were abnormally tired.

Typically the symptoms are: disrupted sleep, grumpiness, headaches, and fatigue.  Some people become melancholy.  And in certain cases persons may experience bowel disturbance.  You also get tired when you would normally be sleeping at home, and wake up at times that would would normally be up and about.

Even long flights in a predominantly North/South direction do not cause jet lag.  East/West flights are the ones that can cause trouble.  If you were to take the long flight from, say, Athens in Greece to Cape Town in South Africa, and you have any of the foregoing symptoms when you arrive, you would not be “jet lagged” – you would just be tired.  Coping with extreme tiredness is easier than jetlag, because you generally just need sleep – your rhythms are not thrown out.

Pre-adjust to the new time zone

One of the DIY Travel Expert team was acclimatised to Istanbul time, then flew to Ireland, a time difference of two hours, and did not notice any jet lag at all.  The secret?  He regularly changes his bed-time every the weekend, going to bed 2-3 hours later than during the week.  A two hour change in his sleep cycle was therefore comfortably within his normal adaptation ability.  It also adds credence to the concept that one can train oneself to improve one’s ability to cope with changes in time zones.

All of the good advice available about coping with jet lag amounts to this: start adjusting your daily cycle before your journey, by moving your bedtime progressively in the direction it will be at your destination.  Set your watch to the destination time when you get into the plane.

If you are travelling East/West then you probably need to plan rest days with little activity after major shifts in time zones, to avoid fatigue.

Oft-quoted advice of limited usefulness

One of the facts of modern life is that we tend to look for a pill as the answer to problems that occur.  Pills are not always the answer, though those that trust in them tend to believe with intensity.  So be prepared for impassioned arguments in favour of specific medications.

Taking melatonin is frequently mentioned in connection with jet-lag but seems to be of limited usefulness.  Additionally, the use of melatonin can actually be detrimental to some people, and it can interfere with the action of prescription medication.

Sleeping pills are often suggested, but they result in very poor quality sleep and can cause immobility, which can greatly increase the possibility of deep vein thrombosis or dangerous clots in the lungs.

A number of sources suggest avoiding caffeine.  Much depends on how your body responds to caffeine, and you know your own body.  There can be a double benefit of judicious caffeine use – in addition to the wake-up effect of caffeine itself is the fact that those of use that drink caffeinated beverages tend to do so at particular times, and this can give a psychological reinforcement of the changed phase of your circadian cycle.

Once you arrive at your destination good quality sleep at the appropriate local time seems to be the best way of coping.  A good bed and a comfortable, peaceful room can help a great deal.  And take it easy for the first few days.

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