Also called desynchronosis (meaning “out of time”), jet lag can be one of the worst, and certainly one of the most frustrating, aspects of long-haul travel.
Whether traveling on business or for pleasure, jet lag is an extremely common sleep disorder suffered by millions of travelers every day. In one recent survey conducted amongst international business travelers, as many as seventy four percent of those who were questioned said that they suffered frequently from jet lag.
Jet lag affects people of all ages, although its symptoms vary widely from person to person and they tend to increase in severity as you get older. The symptoms of jet lag also tend to increase if you already suffer from sleeping difficulties.
The effects of jet lag also increase as the number of time zones crossed during your journey increases. A time difference between your starting point and destination of just a couple of hours is unlikely to present any real problem and you will probably experience little or no jet lag.
However, once your journey crosses more than about three time zones you will begin to experience the symptoms of jet lag, which will tend to become more pronounced as the number of time zones increases.
What Causes Jet Lag?
Jet lag results from travelling across multiple time zones, so that you arrive at a destination with a local time that is either several hours ahead of, or behind, your “home” time.
For example, let’s say that you leave London at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday morning to fly to Bangkok. The flight takes twelve hours and you arrive in Bangkok at 11 o’clock that same evening, London time. However, because you have crossed several time zones the local time in Bangkok is five o’clock on Wednesday morning.
By the time you’ve cleared the airport and taken a taxi to your hotel, it’s probably getting on for seven thirty in the morning and the guests at your hotel are starting to come down for breakfast. However, as far as your body’s internal clock is concerned, it’s still only one thirty in the morning and your body simply wants to crawl into bed.
Your body contains its own internal clock which takes its time from the environment, responding to such things as temperature, humidity and, most importantly, the normal daily change from daylight to darkness. These environmental factors cause your own body clock to run, much like your mantle clock, on a series of twenty four cycles, often referred to as your body’s circadian rhythms.
Just as many aspects of our lives today are controlled by time today, so your body clock is also responsible for controlling many of your body’s functions. In particular, your internal body clock tells your body when it is time to shut down for sleep and when it is time to wake up and start the day’s activities.
By crossing several time zones and placing your body clock out of balance with local time at your destination you upset the whole rhythm of your day, giving rise to such things as problems sleeping at night, keeping awake during the day and eating when you wouldn’t normally eat. This, in turn, results in jet lag.
Understanding Your Body’s Internal Clock
Your body is regulated by an internal clock (sometimes referred to as your body’s “circadian rhythm”) which relies on a variety of environmental cues such as daylight and temperature.
Travelling across several time zones upsets this internal clock and the degree of ‘upset’, and consequently the degree of jet lag suffered, can be measured in terms of the time change you undergo – the greater the difference in time between your home and your destination, the more disoriented your body clock becomes and the more jet lag you are likely to experience.
A major feature of jet lag is seen in your body’s struggle between emotional energy and physical lethargy. Your brain is able to process and adapt to the change in time and location relatively quickly and can appreciate environmental cues such as daylight and darkness and time of day. Your body, however, will be much slower to respond.
Although the time to recover will vary from person to person, it is generally agreed that overcoming jet lag and resuming a regular sleep cycle can take two or three days or, in severe cases, as much as a week.
Insomnia caused by jet lag, although not necessarily serious, can interfere with mental clarity and efficiency and may affect your emotional state.
Jet lag can also create difficulties for both business travelers and tourists, making it difficult to maximize the opportunities afforded by their stay. In addition, if insomnia caused by jet lag does not pass, or continues for more than a couple of weeks, it could be an indication of a more persistent and underlying sleep problem.
Common Remedies for Jet Lag
Natural sleep remedies can be used to manage jet lag very effectively and, by taking a proactive approach, you can significantly reduce or limit the both the severity of your jet lag and the number of symptoms experienced – not to mention shortening the duration of your jet lag.
Having a regular and consistent sleep schedule before you even start to make your travel plans is an important step towards limiting the effects of jet lag.
Making simple dietary changes, such as the reduction or elimination of caffeine and alcohol, have also been shown to be effective, and travelers who are accustomed to coping with jet lag often take along natural sleep remedies, like herbal teas and infusions, to help induce the body’s natural sleep cycles once they arrive at their destination.
It is also often thought that sleeping pills and other over-the-counter and prescribed sleep aids are also effective tools for managing jet lag. This is not the case!
Because sleeping pills act to suppress the body’s immune system in order to generate a state of artificial sleep, as opposed to naturally induced restorative sleep, sleeping pills are rarely an effective remedy for jet lag. Indeed, sleeping pills can potentially exacerbate the symptoms of jet lag and delay the adjustment of your internal body clock.
Jet Lag Pills: Panacea or Placebo Effect?
There are many different ways of combating jet lag but, whatever method you use, the end result must be a realignment of your own body clock to that of local time, if the symptoms of jet lag are to disappear.
So can this be achieved with a simple pill?
One of the most commonly used pills today is a homeopathic preparation containing, amongst other things, extracts from the chamomile plant and a common form of daisy.
Now while homeopathic remedies have a long and well established history, and while chamomile itself is well known for its properties in assisting sleep, it seems a little far fetched to say the least to suggest that taking a pill before you take off will fast forward your body clock some six hours during the course of your flight from London to Singapore.
So why do so many people swear by such pills? There are probably four main reasons:
- First, we have become conditioned to believe that science has reached such an advanced state today that doctors can cure just about anything and so why shouldn’t we believe in a pill to cure jet lag.
- Second, over the years many drug trials have demonstrated the power of the ‘placebo effect’. In other words, the simple fact that something is being done to combat a condition can in itself result in the felling that it works.
- Third, jet lag doesn’t always appear straight away. We’re all know that a few late nights doesn’t always effect us immediately and that it may be a couple of days before our late nights catch up with us. Many travelers also feel fine for their first couple of days and assume that the pills must have worked. When jet lag does catch up with them, they often wrongly attribute their symptoms to any number of things including the change in climate or something they’ve eaten.
- Fourth, the sale of pills is big businesses and is supported by both big advertising budgets and clever marketing. This marketing extends to jet lag pills and is even supported by studies aimed at clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of such pills. The problem here is that the vast majority of the studies quoted are fundamentally flawed and lack any detail. For example, most studies involve airline crews, in particular cabin staff, who are hardly representative of the majority of the traveling public and could well be thought of as having a vested interest in promoting air travel.
It would be nice to be able to simply take a pill when we board the aircraft and arrive at our destination with no jet lag. Unfortunately, at least for the time being, this isn’t possible.
Preventing jet lag, or reducing jet lag symptoms considerably, is not difficult and involves some planning in advance of your trip and following a careful, but easy, plan before, during and after your flight. The one thing this plan doesn’t involve is a so-called magic ‘jet lag pill’.
Do Jet Lag Diets Work
So-called ‘anti jet lag’ diets have been around for a number of years now, but do they work?
Perhaps the most well know anti jet lag diet is the Argonne Diet, developed over 20 years ago in 1982 at the Argonne National Laboratory. Literally thousands of people have downloaded copies of this diet online over the years and it is reputed to have been used by an impressive list of people including the late President Ronald Regan, the US Secret Service, the CIA and the US Army and Navy. It has also reportedly been used by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian swim team.
When you realize, however, that the only evidence in support of the effectiveness of the Argonne Diet lies in a study conducted by the US military, this list of &’supporters’ doesn’t seem quite so impressive.
At first sight the US military study might appear to support the effectiveness of the diet, although the report itself, which was published in 2002, points out a number of problems with the study and says that “larger and better controlled studies need to be used to verify the usefulness of the Argonne diet”.
The biggest problem with this study however lies in the rationale behind the study and in the group of people chosen for the study.
Every year the US military deploys hundreds of thousands of troops around the world and jet lag has a significant impact upon their operations. Preventing, or at least reducing the effects of, jet lag is therefore something of a priority issue.
But curing jet lag on a scale such as this can be a very costly business and so looking for a simple, inexpensive, convenient and readily available solution, with minimal side-effects was absolutely essential.
Not surprisingly therefore the US military focused its attention on the possibility of using a diet as nothing could be either simpler or cheaper to implement. A diet also represented a natural solution, without any of the emotive or medical problems so often associated with the usual pills or administering injections to large numbers of troops.
Perhaps of more significance though was the group of individuals chosen for the study. Volunteers were taken from 186 National Guard personnel being deployed to Korea. Of these, 95 used the diet on the outbound journey and 39 used the diet coming home.
Two questions appear to arise here.
- The first question is whether or not results seen in a group of National Guard personnel could reasonably be expected to be repeated in the general traveling population. I think it’s fair to say that most people would agree that this can hardly be said to be a representative sample.
- The second question is why only 39 volunteers used the diet on the return journey home when 95 people had used it on the outbound journey. If those using it for the deployment had found it effective then surely more than 41 percent of them would have wanted to use it again coming home.
These questions are important but perhaps the real question that we should be asking is why a diet should be effective at all as a cure for jet lag.
Jet lag results from the inability of your body to adjust its own internal clock fast enough to bring it into line with local time when traveling across multiple time zones. For example, when you arrive at your destination and the clock says it’s ten o’clock in the morning and time to start the day’s work, your internal body clock may still be reading three o’clock in the morning (the time back home) and telling you that you should be fast asleep.
So just how is a diet supposed to solve this little problem?
Well, the simple answer of course is that it can’t.
Yes, what you eat and drink plays an important role in helping your body to overcome the effects of jet lag and can assist in reducing jet lag symptoms. Diet, however, is only one small part of the equation for solving the problems of jet lag and simply making a few adjustment to what you eat and drink before, during and after your journey, is not going solve the problem.
Preventing jet lag by using so-called ‘anti jet lag’ diets is a nice idea, but, unfortunately, it’s also a myth rather than a reality.
Jet Lag and the Power of Melatonin
Despite the fact that melatonin is probably the most widely studied and best understood natural insomnia remedy, its use remains controversial; largely because it has not yet been approved for use by any regulatory body.
Additionally, despite numerous studies conducted over several years, opinion remains divided over whether or not melatonin actually works.
Melatonin, a hormone that occurs naturally in your body, is released into your system by a pea-sized organ in the brain called the pineal gland.
This release of melatonin is controlled by your internal body clock, or circadian rhythms, and melatonin plays an extremely important role in the regulation of your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
With the fall of darkness your body releases melatonin to signal that it is time to go to sleep and, as daylight appears, the effects of melatonin are suppressed in preparation for normal waking activity.
The primary cause of jet lag following a long-haul flight is the shift in time between that recorded by your internal body clock and the actual, or local, time at your destination. The secret to combating jet lag lies in the ability to re-adjust your body clock to bring it into line with local time and this can be achieved very effectively by taking melatonin.
Melatonin can be especially useful if you are traveling from west to east. If the time difference between your point of departure and your destination is say 5 hours, your body clock will be set at 6 pm, when local time will be showing 11 pm.
In other words, your internal clock will be telling you that it’s time for you to get ready for your normal evening activity when everybody around you will be thinking about going to bed. Taking melatonin in this situation will trigger your body into thinking that it is time for sleep.In one study undertaken into the use of melatonin, a group of travelers were given melatonin supplements for the three days prior to a long-haul flight and again for three days after their arrival. All of those taking part in the study reported experiencing much lower levels of fatigue and also stated that they regained their normal sleeping pattern quite quickly. In a second study, involving twenty volunteers traveling regularly between New Zealand and the United Kingdom, half of the volunteers were given melatonin supplements before departure and after arrival and the other half of the group were given a placebo. The results of the study showed that those people given melatonin regained their normal sleeping pattern in about half the time taken by those given the placebo.
On balance, it would seem that melatonin benefits a significant number of users and it would be fair to say that it is worth giving it a go. It is not of course a jet lag cure in itself and should be used as just one part of any jet lag management plan.