Your output needn’t sag with jet lag

It’s been said that jet lag is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo...

Each day, thousands of people share the symptoms of jet lag. Athletes and executives, backpackers and pilgrims bemoan the feeling. Symptoms include fatigue, itchy eyes, insomnia, dizziness and an almost chronic inability to sleep when others do.

Some people say jet lag causes them constipation, sweating, diarrhea, disorientation, a dry cough, dry skin, ear ache, headache, hemorrhoids, impaired coordination and vision, impatience, insecurity, irregular heartbeat, loss of libido, low blood sugar, memory loss, nausea, susceptibility to illness and swollen feet.

You might not be hit by all these symptoms the moment you pass through customs at JFK, but even the most resilient travelers are likely to feel a little our of sorts.

The number of time zones you cross is the major factor in assessing jet lag. Studies show that people can suffer jet lag just crossing the United States - a three-hour time change - but may not be affected by a north-south flight of the same duration. Crossing time zones plays havoc with your body clock mechanism, called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is controlled by a small part of the hypothalamus gland in the brain that processes nerve signals.

The body clock is designed for regular cycles of daylight and darkness. This cycle is disturbed and subsequently gets out of synch by changing time zones. Depending on the number of time zones that have been crossed, it may take several days for the circadian rhythm to be restored.

So what’s the solution?

  • Leave the booze alone. It’s tempting to snuggle up with four martinis when you’re sentenced to 14 hours of confinement with limited recreational possibilities. And you’re not driving anyway, right? Don’t. Alcohol will dehydrate you and increase the symptoms of jet lag.
  • Rehydrate. Like alcohol, tea and coffee act as a diuretic. Drink plenty of water and fruit juice.
  • Go unshod: Your feet may swell during the flight. This is caused by low air pressure in the aircraft and sitting for hours at a time. Wear comfortable shoes and try taking them off during the flight. Some travelers wear shoes half a size too large, then insert cushion pads once they land.
  • Be casual: Comfortable, soft clothes will help you settle into the airline seats that are only a couple of inches wide. Wearing a motorcycle jacket with 12 buckles and 24 zips might look hip, but it won’t help you relax.
  • Have a blackout. Wear the eye-shields that the airline provides – they may help if you can stand them for more than three minutes. Turn out the light and try to sleep.
  • Work out. Vigorous exercise and a good night’s sleep before a long flight may help you sleep.
  • Use eye drops to combat the irritating dryness induced by the aircraft’s ventilation.
  • Get the trots: Walking around inside the aircraft and doing gentle stretching will help keep the blood circulating and stop your muscles from stiffening up. You can also do isometric exercises tensing your muscles while you’re sitting in your seat.
  • Pretend you’re already there. Adjusting your sleep pattern to match your destination may help. This may mean going to sleep earlier – or later – before you leave. It’ll mean less of a shock to your system once you arrive.
  • Feel bran new: Eating fibre will help prevent the constipation induced by sitting still for hours at a time.
  • Be flexible. When you first arrive, to schedule work or other important activities at times when you are likely to have maximum energy: Work in the evenings after flying east and in the mornings after flying west.
  • Stay awake: If you arrive in the morning plan, to stay awake. If possible try to wait until the local bedtime to sleep. You will sleep better and will be less likely to suffer insomnia than if you take a nap upon arriving.
  • Forget about home: Try not to think about what time it is at home. But if you need to maintain contact with the office back home, try a watch with two times zones, or two watches.
  • Pop the pills: Some researchers have say vitamins are depleted in a plane's unnatural atmosphere, which could contribute to jet lag. To counteract this, try taking vitamin B12 two weeks before and one week after a flight. You can also try doses of time-released vitamin C starting the day before departure and stopping a day after the return home.
  • Peel one off: On a long flight, potassium can be drained from the body by lack of activity. Counteract this deficiency by drinking fresh orange juice or eating a banana.

- William Smook, Health24, updated July 2011

Read more:
Protein: the secret behind jet lag

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