SHED SOME LIGHT: Sleep Hygiene Tip of the Week: Managing jet lag while traveling over the holiday

Crossing many time zones in an airplane can lead to temporarily disordered circadian rhythms Crossing many time zones in an airplane can lead to temporarily disordered circadian rhythms

“Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go…”

NOT... Grandmother lives in Miami and you live in Denver. Your siblings and their families live in Fargo; Trenton, New Jersey; and Memphis.

“Nightly Rotation Above San Jose International
Airport” (2005) by Wing-Chi Poon. CC:ASA-2.5 Generic.

These days, airlines have replaced the old-timey sleighs that carted families from one town to the next for special occasions like Thanksgiving.

If you are someone who lives far away from family and must rely on flights to be reunited, then you likely admire those who only have to make the quick drive across town or even the few hours on the highway.

Traveling in the winter, especially, takes extra time and extra energy to sort through all the delays that might arise due to weather and overbookings.

What makes things worse is that every time you hop a time zone (forward or backward), you confuse your body clocks. The more time zones you cross during a continental flight, the more confused your body clocks will be.

Your main clock, located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain, will find changes in light exposure (too little when the brain expects there to be light, or too much light when the brain expects there to be little) overwhelming.

It’s not a force of habit that leads to the symptoms of exhaustion that we have come to term jet lag, but actually a reshuffling of chemical balances in the brain, which has been confused by these external queues and suddenly cannot reset itself accordingly. It is essentially out of rhythm with the rest of the body.

Circadian rhythms are informed by the light and dark cycles of the earth. They also take their cues from our activity levels (the body naturally is more energetic in the morning and less energetic in the evening, for example) and our eating habits. Our digestive system does not expect to be processing a main meal several hours before or after it normally does this task; meals eaten much later than normal are especially troublesome because that is when key organs in the body, which operate on their own clocks–which are synchronized to the main clock–are trying to rest.

What this all amounts to is a sense of disorientation, however temporary, plus feeling less than 100 percent. Fatigue, gasiness and bloating, dehydration and insomnia can all be side effects from hopping time zones.

Technically speaking, jet lag has been taken off the list of circadian rhythm disorders because of its temporary nature… everyone eventually recovers from these shifts in the body’s rhythms when they return home. That doesn’t make it easier to manage during stressful times like the holidays, however.

There are ways to help yourself so that these feelings of travel-related malaise aren’t quite so extreme.

  • Drinking water before, during and after the plane ride (and not coffee, alcohol or soda) will help keep your body in balance through changes in temperature, climate and cabin pressurization. In fact, most of your discomfort from jet lag will come because of dehydration.
  • How many hours are you traveling east? Three? Then start shifting your schedule by going to bed a half hour earlier on Saturday, then an hour earlier on Sunday, then an hour and a half earlier on Monday, two hours earlier on Tuesday, two and a half hours earlier on Wednesday. Reverse this plan if you are traveling west across three time zones. It may seem extreme but if you really need all your energy for the holidays themselves, you will thank yourself later for planning ahead so you won’t need to endure the fatigue/insomnia showdown that can come with jet lag later.
  • On your travel days, curb your eating. Don’t eat a big meal before getting on the plane. Try not to eat a full meal on the plane, as well (a snack would be okay if you really are hungry), then wait until you are off the plane. Once you are at your destination, eat only during the local meal time. This will make it easier to adjust for the holidays when you really want to enjoy those family meals together.
  • Use earplugs, eye masks, blankets and neck pillows to sleep comfortably on the plane, should you be traveling during a time you would normally sleep. However, try not to oversleep on the plane; only sleep when your body needs it or you might rob yourself of your sleep drive prematurely.
About Tamara Kaye Sellman (621 Articles)

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