Today I would like to address a topic as part of our blog series about sleep. Something I personally find really horrible and deal really badly with. Time to change that and learn more about it! What I’m talking about is JET LAG. Have you experienced traveling through the time zones, not being able to fall asleep, staying awake for ages, randomly scrolling through your phone – because, what else to do in the middle of the night? Do you know this feeling like you got hit by a bus because the “new 7am” is some time in the middle of the night in your “normal time zone”?
But let’s first start with learning more about what it is. The word jet lag is put together from the words jet plane and lag (in the sense of “delay”). If we fly over several time zones, we experience the jet lag syndrome because our circadian rhythm, which is the body’s biological clock, gets disrupted. Many functions like the blood pressure, cardiac frequency, body temperature, the sensation of hunger and thirst, as well as different hormones are linked to the circadian rhythm, which is controlled by the nucleus suprachiasmatic nerve in our brain. The daylight also plays a crucial part in this system.
What are the symptoms of having a jet lag?
You might have experienced the following symptoms yourself. The main symptoms of a jet lag are sleep disturbance, difficulty in concentration, a headache, a lack of appetite, digestive problems and irritability. What symptoms do you show the most? Since we are all different, we might show some symptoms stronger than others, whereas we might not show other symptoms at all. I personally get headaches very easily and my sleep is quite disturbed – I catch myself wanting to fall asleep at random times during the day, whereas I keep waking up during the night several times (actually, it’s a bit like the sleeping rhythm of a baby now that I think of it…).
So how long does it take for our body to adjust to the new time zone?
Let’s give an example: If we are flying from Munich (Germany) to Vancouver (Canada), we are passing nine time zones – which can be difficult to adjust to.
On average, the process of resynchronication lasts half to a full day for each time zone. This means, if we are flying from Europe to the North America we could face symptoms of jet lag, like sleeping problems, for more than a week. There are individual differences for how long and how intense we experience a jet lag, but flying East to West is usually easier for the body to adjust to than flying West to East. The reason is that it’s easier for our body to adjust to longer days (flying West) than to shorter days (flying East). Also, if we tend to follow a strict daily routine, we might find it harder to adjust to a different time zone compared to someone who’s daily routine is not constant.
Here’s a first tip: If you are staying in a country with a different time zone for just a very short time (e.g. only for a competition for a few days), you can try to stay in your daily rhythm without going through the adapting process.
What else can we do? What if we don’t stay in the other time zone for a short time only? I’ve clustered the tips in three categories: first of all, what we can do before departing; then, what we can do during boarding; and last but not least, what we can do once we have arrived.
Things can we do in advance of departing:
Try to adapt your body, especially your circadian rhythm, to the new time zone some days ahead of the trip by e.g. going to bed later and getting up later if you fly West, or going to bed earlier and getting up earlier if you are flying East.
If you have a competition in a country with a different time zone, it can be helpful to train and be awake and energetic at the same time you will have your competition in the country of destination. This might mean training and doing competition simulations at home at a different time than you are used to, even if this includes trainings in the middle of the night! If you like company while training and in order to increase your motivation and enjoyment, try to find colleagues/training partners who can join you in this project. It’s always more fun to train together, particularly at weird times of the day!
Things we can do when boarding a plane or during the flight:
Change the time on your watch when entering the plane will help to get used to the new time zone.
Try to adjust your eating routine before landing. It is very important to drink enough water, as well as to avoid caffeine, alcoholic beverages (they can disrupt sleep and cause dehydration) and heavy food. Food, which is rich in protein facilitates staying awake whereas carbohydrates promote sleepiness.
If you fly West to East, try to sleep on the plane as much as possible. If you fly from East to West, it’s recommended to rather stay awake during the flight. However, don’t force yourself to sleep or to stay awake since this can cause frustration. If it doesn’t work the way you plan, try to rest as much as possible.
Try to minimise sleep distractions – you can do this by wearing an eye mask or earplugs. Noise cancelling headphones can be really good, too, since they cancel all the noise and pressure from the plane.
Move around or get physically active every hour or so on the plane to decrease the risk of blood clots. This can help decrease exhaustion caused by sitting for long periods on the small plane seats, too.
Research studies have shown mixed results about using medication to treat jet lag. Certain medication might decrease symptoms but they can also be addictive and therefore dangerous. If you consider taking any pills, talk to a doctor first.
Things you can do once you have arrived:
Start the synchronising process immediately by following the new day-night rhythm. This means, try to go to bed even though you don’t feel tired and get up even though you might still be tired.
Spend as much time as possible outside. Sunlight is important because it can help you to adjust faster. Also plan to have an easy first day in your country of destination to support your body.
Moving around and easy to moderate exercise can also help to better adapt.
Try to avoid long naps during the day since they can reinforce your natural sleep cycle which you have at home. Short power naps can be helpful though.
Everyone of us – and therefore also our bodies – is different. These are all suggestions and ideas that might help you to better deal with jet lag. Doesn’t mean that they perfectly work for you. Most importantly, listen to your body and try to find out what works best for you to get over jet lags.
As always, here’s the link to the literature. If you want to read more about sleep, feel free to read our latest blog posts about sleep (how to improve sleep quality & effects of good and bad sleep on our performance).
If you have any questions, send us an email! 🌞