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While You're Away: Jet Lag

Ghana"Getting there is half the fun", goes a popular cliché. While this may hold true for a lazy driving trip through New England, or a flight to Florida, it generally does not apply to a twenty hour flight to Bangkok, or the long return home from Nairobi. It can be tough enough to survive the rigors of economy class flight. When we finally arrive, it gets worse. We succumb to jet lag.

Jet lag occurs when our internal body clock, which happens to have twenty-five hours, becomes out of sync with that of our new destination. This can occur after crossing as few as three time zones. For example, you may be rushing off to see the Pyramids in Egypt, just when your brain was expecting to crawl under the covers for some badly needed sleep. Or, conversely, it may be time for lights out, but your mind is telling you that it’s only three in the afternoon. Fortunately, travelling north-south is not a problem.

The symptoms of jet lag include loss of appetite, insomnia or fatigue, disorientation and irritability. Hardly a great way to begin your vacation…or return to work. The severity might depend upon the direction of your travel, the number of time zones crossed, and your personal susceptibility. I myself recall an unquenchable desire to sleep for a week after my return from India a few years ago.

Added to this are all of the other joys of air travel, such the sleep deprivation, dehydration, overabundance of food, alcohol and coffee, and lack of fresh air and exercise (understandably).

Somewhere at the bottom of the jet lag riddle is the ubiquitous hormone, melatonin. It is produced by a small gland in our brain called the pineal gland. Levels of melatonin are lowest during the day when we are awake and exposed to lots of light, and highest at night, helping us sleep, we think! Melatonin has also been found to be beneficial for some with sleep disorders. However its effect on baldness, sexual performance and debt reduction has not yet been proven!

Another jet lag remedy on the market is called No-Jet-Lag. This is a homeopathic concoction containing bellis perenis, chamomilla, ipecacuanha, arnica montana and lycopodium. It claims to reduce stress, swelling of the limbs, chances of infection, and the time needed to recover from long flights. The pills are taken every two hours between takeoff and landing. Brief naps are allowed. Some people swear it works. They don’t taste bad at all. Check out No-Jet Lag's web page if you want more information.

There are many remedies for jet lag. Unfortunately, some of them are either ineffective, impractical or both. The "jet lag diet", which involves manipulating your food intake, caffeine intake and proportions of protein and carbohydrates, is a bit complicated to say the least. Varying the amount and timing of your exposure to light for a few days before your trip, and after your arrival, is another method. Though it might help, who has got the time. We’re all madly rushing around paying our bills and taking the dog off to the kennel before we fly!
So what might help? Well looking after yourself during your flight might be your best bet. Consider the following:

  • Drink lots of fluids while in flight, preferably water. Avoid the coffee and alcohol. They cause dehydration and upset your sleep patterns.
  • Don’t eat everything that comes your way. Gases expand in the air up there. Your belt will need an extra notch or two by the time you arrive.
  • If you fly at night, try to get some sleep on the plane. Use the complimentary earplugs and blindfold. Invest in an inflatable pillow.
  • A short-acting sleeping pill might help with that snooze on the plane, and perhaps at your destination if jet lag is a problem
  • Switch to the local time schedule upon your arrival. A cold shower or a quick swim should help you wake up at your destination.
  • Schedule a night’s stopover on your way if possible.
  • Don’t plan to perform brain surgery or high level negotiations as soon as you arrive

And then there is melatonin! Considering that it is no longer legally available in Canada, I shall not dwell on it. But its effect is supposedly to induce a chemical darkness, and hence some sleep. Though it is probably effective for some, dosages and schedules are still a bit up in the air, as were you for ten hours!

Jet lag is one of the joys of travel, right up there with motion sickness and lost baggage. Thankfully, many of its unwanted effects can be minimized with some careful planning and sensible behaviour. So don’t dread it, but instead, try to beat it!

Content (c) Mark Wise
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