It’s undoubtedly the worst thing about travelling and yet it’s inevitable. Here, Vicki-Marie Cossar explores what can be done to alleviate the effects.
Let’s get one thing clear, jet lag sucks. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming or going, if you’re crossing multiple time zones, you’re going to suffer. It’s the only thing you can’t control when going on vacation – that, and the weather, of course – because it’s all down to your body’s natural circadian rhythm (the sleep/wake cycle). This 24-hour cycle is part of your body’s internal clock and signals when to get up and when to go to sleep. Your body’s circadian rhythm also initiates the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep and jet lag occurs when you travel quickly across the world and mess with these finely tuned cycles. Symptoms can include disturbed sleep (insomnia, early waking or sleepiness), fatigue, difficulty concentrating and functioning at your normal level and even stomach problems (constipation and diarrhoea). Recovery is thought to be a day for every time zone you’ve crossed and is simply a case of letting your body naturally adjust. While there’s no cure, there are things that can help.
It can be tempting to rip up training schedules when on holiday, but research has found that exercise may counter the disruption to your circadian rhythm. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Physiology measured the circadian rhythms of 99 participants at different times of the day. It found that when participants exercised at 7am or between 1-4pm, it shifted their circadian rhythm to an earlier time, but when they exercised between 7pm and 10pm, their body clocks were pushed back. This shows that doing some exercise might be beneficial in shifting your sleep/wake cycle when you’re entering a new time zone.
Food and drink
Because jet lag is more to do with your body’s biology than what you eat and drink, there’s nothing that can boost recovery. However, dehydration can worsen the effects of jet lag so stay hydrated and don’t drink too much much caffeine or alcohol – as tempting as that might be. If you do want to go the extra mile though, try including foods that contain melatonin like tart cherries, nuts and ginger (a cup of ginger tea, perhaps?). Eating watermelon can help fight fatigue and the potassium and natural sugar in bananas is good if you need a natural energy hit.
Other things to help
The right sleeping environment can also play a part in reducing jet lag so instead of drawing the curtains completely, allow some light to seep through in the morning to advance your circadian rhythm - sunlight is the most powerful initiator for the wake-up rhythm. And invest in a decent eye mask and ear plugs to block out light and sound when you want to switch off. In some countries, melatonin is available to buy in health food shops and sold as a complementary medicine. However, these supplements are not authorised for sale in the UK and melatonin is a prescription-only medicine in the UK, prescribed for sleep problems, like insomnia. You can also think about manipulating your body clock before you go away, so try shifting your wake-up/sleep times in the direction of your new time zone by about 15 minute increments each day. The Timeshifter app is designed for shift workers and travellers and offers great for advice and suggestions to get started with this.