Nearly two million people travel by plane on a daily basis, with some crossing twelve or more hours of land and sea in the same 24-hour period. On a shorter flight, the biggest inconveniences are typically the time spent waiting and being corralled in densely populated areas, possibly mixed with some in-flight disturbances and a bit of dehydration. Longer flights can encourage another pesky problem to arise—one that we commonly refer to as jet lag.
Before taking a long flight during which you’ll cross two or more time zones, it’s worth it to learn as many tips to prevent and reduce jet lag as possible. This disorder is far from a life and death situation, but it can still be quite uncomfortable and seriously disrupt travel plans.
KNOW THY ENEMY
While our bodies have many evolutionary advantages (think sweating, finger dexterity, comprehension, and so on), we are simply not made for staying awake for long stretches of time. In a very fascinating process, our senses work in tandem with our brains to create a sort of internal clock. You may have heard the term “circadian rhythm” here and there, and in essence, this inner working provides the basis for that concept.
Sunlight is a critical component in the regulation of our inner clock. When there is little to no sunlight being absorbed by the eyes and body, the brain recognizes this and produces a natural chemical called melatonin, which helps us sleep. Simplified, melatonin creates a calmer state of being, allowing us to drift off for the night. During the day, the production of this chemical drops significantly, and we find ourselves able to stay awake.
This sleep cycle process as a whole is not easy to override; this becomes a problem when traveling across multiple time zones, as we will be pushing our bodies to adjust to a new local time. When traveling towards the east, we may lose multiple hours of our typical day, while west affords us extra hours. Both situations are an obstacle for our bodies to overcome during periods of travel.
SPOTTING JET LAG
Common sense tells us whether or not we will be at risk for jet lag, but the symptoms may be surprising to those who have not experienced them before. On top of interrupting our sleep schedule, creating poor sleep, and leaving us feeling fatigued (the things we might naturally expect), jet lag can also cause us to have mood changes, be dehydrated, feel generally unwell, and suffer digestive issues, such as constipation and diarrhea.
Some of these issues intermingle with the basics of flying, itself. When we’re up in the sky, we experience changes in air pressure that can impact our blood oxygen levels and simultaneously cause intestinal gases to swell. These side effects are rarely dangerous, especially for those who are healthy, so the benefits of being able to travel by plane far outweigh the risks—think of all the pilots and flight attendants who do it all day long!
Still, our bodies do need to adjust and adapt to these differences, and the longer our flight is, the more pronounced or tricky they may become when we land. Again, this isn’t something to feel particularly scared about, but it can interfere with travel plans, especially if you’re not expecting it.
There are a variety of measures we can take to combat the assorted side effects of jet lag disorder. The length and purpose of your trip will often help dictate which precautions will be worth your while. For example, a traveler taking a single or two-day business trip that requires lengthy travel, but a relatively short stay, may not need or want to disrupt their home-base routine as much as someone heading on a long vacation or flying to participate in a sporting event.
The first thing you can do is to be smart about scheduling your flight. If you can create a situation where you will be able to sleep on the plane and wake up at a good local time relative to your destination, this is ideal. Be sure to pack all the essentials to give yourself the best chance of sleeping well. Earplugs, a comfy neck pillow, and a great sleep mask will all support your cause.
You can also use this sleep mask to begin adjusting your sleep schedule before your trip. If possible, shifting 30-60 minutes towards your new local time every few days or so leading up to your trip will really help ensure that your body is ready to go when you land. Remember that sunlight greatly impacts our ability to sleep, so this mask will come in handy to make this transition.
Rounding back to flight itinerary, the second-best option behind sleeping on the plane and waking up at an appropriate local time is to land at your destination in the evening and to keep yourself awake at least until 10 PM on your travel day. This is likely a more effective plan if you are losing time in the course of your travel, but the nighttime setting may help you fall asleep either way.
It’s also extremely beneficial to arrive 2-3 days prior to any major event you have, in order to give your body time to adjust. Unfortunately, this is not always an accessible luxury, but it can make a huge difference if the option is available, especially for competitive athletes.
When you arrive at your destination, even if you are on a great sleep schedule for the local time and feel ready to fall asleep when it counts, troubles can arise. Consciously or not, it is normal for us to have a more difficult time sleeping in a new environment. Even if you feel safe and unbothered, your brain may not fall into as deep of a sleep as it is capable of, in an effort to self-protect. Bringing along some keepsakes that strongly invoke your regular sleeping habitat back home can help remedy this pesky problem. Utilizing a noise machine can also be of use falling asleep; if you’re used to street traffic, nature sounds, or just need some white noise, this can help cozy up the environment and help the mind feel at ease.
Be sure to set the thermostat in your new sleep environment to a comfortable degree that won’t disrupt sleep by being too hot or too cold. Since you may be experiencing digestive issues that could interfere with your pre-planned night of great sleep, in the face of all of your preparations, it’s also a smart idea to opt for multiple wake-up calls or to set multiple alarms. Better safe than sorry!