Fatigued person at an airport

Vacationing somewhere far from home is always fun, but getting there by plane can be a real lesson in self-discipline. Hours upon hours in a cramped, confined space with low atmospheric pressure and low humidity can cause discomfort ranging from headaches to dehydration.

No surprises.

But even after you get off the plane, your troubles may be just beginning. While traveling symptoms fatigue the unpleasant feelings that accompany the jet fade relatively quickly delay — irritability, indigestion, daytime sleepiness and sleeplessness at night — can last for days or even weeks if you don’t play your cards right.

For frequent travelers like pilots and flight attendants, jet lag can even become a chronic problem. In the long term, this is associated with an increased risk of things like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Before the airplane was invented and international flights were introduced in the last century,” says Greg Roach, a professor at the Appleton Institute of Behavioral Sciences in South Australia, “there [was] there is no need for our circadian systems to immediately adapt to the rapid changes of time zones.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible – within reason.

Roach and his colleagues have spent a lot of time advising athletes, coaches and sports psychologists on how best to minimize jet lag before major competitions such as the Olympics or the World Cup. Luckily for us, his tips and tricks also applies to non-athletes.

What is jet lag?

Jet lag occurs when your circadian system or body clock is out of sync with your new environment.

Human circadian rhythms operate on roughly a 24-hour schedule and affect a whole host of background physical, mental, and behavioral processes that you don’t normally worry about—until you fly across three different time zones, of course.

The system reaches its lowest point about five hours after a good night’s sleep. For most of us, this is somewhere between 3am and 5am

At this point, your body behaves very differently from the way it does while you’re awake; in fact, even your core body temperature is at its lowest during this time. Then, when the morning light enters your eyes and travels through the optic nerve all the way to the circadian center, your brain tells you it’s time to wake up and be alert.


Read more: How your circadian rhythms control your every waking and sleeping moment


How to reset your circadian rhythm

What does all this have to do with jet lag? “The biggest misconception,” says Roach, “is that the best approach to minimizing jet lag is to get as much sunlight as possible in the new location.”

Light exposure and jet lag

As a general rule, it’s good to get as much sun as you want when traveling from east to west because the sun sets before your circadian rhythm naturally hits its nadir. In this case, your internal clock reads the sunlight as a “slow down” signal — essentially, it already knows it needs to slow down to match what’s going on in its environment.

To make sure your body gets the message, Roach suggests basking in the sun without sunglasses or spending time in a brightly lit room in the hours just before your biological clock’s natural low point.

Travel from west to eastunfortunately, it’s often much more complicated than that.

Let’s say you traveled from Los Angeles to London and your circadian nadir is now around noon local time (mmm). If you choose to catch as many rays as possible in the morning and afternoon, your circadian system will subsequently receive both a “delay” and an “advance” signal (double hooray).

“The result is that your clock gets stuck in a state that isn’t aligned with local time, so you’ll be sleepy during the day and sleep poorly at night,” explains Roach.

Instead, he suggests avoiding light altogether in the morning and then exposing yourself to plenty of light in the hours after your internal clock’s low point to speed things up.

Melatonin for Jet Lag

The ultimate goal, of course, is to shift your daytime circadian low point until it happens while you’re actually sleeping at night. However, if you get tired during the day, you may be tempted to rely on a quick cat nap.

Limit these naps to less than 30 minutes and take them at least eight hours before your scheduled bedtime; anything else can further disrupt your sleep schedule. As an alternative, Rush University Medical Center researchers Charman Eastman and Helen Burgess suggest taking it 1 to 3 milligrams of melatonin two hours before bedtime.

In fact, try both light exposure and melatonin if possible. Their effects, according to various studiesare additive — meaning that using both tools at the same time has a greater effect and helps you adjust to time zones more quickly.

But where melatonin really outshines the sun is in its ability to alter your body clock throughout the day leading up on flight too. If you’re planning to travel from east to west, Roach recommends taking a small amount of the supplement after the circadian low point—every time you wake up in the morning—to tell it ahead of time to slow down.

Traveling from west to east? Do the opposite: Take some melatonin in the hours before bed for a few days to prime your circadian system to speed up.


Read more: Does melatonin cause dementia?


How to overcome jet lag

Beyond light, there are other environmental stimuli that also affect our internal clocks. Researchers call them zeitgebersand these can include things ranging from temperature to social interactions.

If light exposure and melatonin aren’t doing the trick, try the following:

  • Stay hydrated.

  • Communicate to boost your mood and stay alert.

  • Eat according to local schedule.

  • Exercise during the day, even if it means taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

  • Skip alcohol and caffeine before bed.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that no matter what you do, your body simply won’t be operating at peak performance for a while—whether you’re a professional athlete or not. Unnecessary physical and mental stress will only make things worse.

So adjust both your sightseeing schedules and your personal expectations, at least for the first few days. Chances are, you’ll still find plenty to enjoy.


Read more: The biology of stress in your body


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