You know the feeling. You’ve just touched down in New York, and while the partygoers are ready to hit the nightclubs, you’re ready to hit the hay.
Or as the morning sunlight shines through your Tokyo hotel room, you feel like it’s midnight and haven’t slept a wink…
There’s nothing quite like jet lag to put a stop to ‘that holiday feeling’. And it can do more than simply make you feel groggy and grumpy while visiting tourist attractions.
A study by British Airways found that flying through time zones quickly can reduce attention by 75%, memory by 20% and decision-making by 50%.
But what exactly is this traveller’s nemesis – and how can you avoid it?
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Also called desynchronosis or flight fatigue, jet lag is the disruption of the body’s biological clock, which occurs when you cross time zones faster than your body’s natural ability to adjust.
It is thought that, for every time zone crossed it takes a day to recover from the symptoms. So for Brits heading to Dubai, this would eat into their holiday by four days, while a Costa Rica trip would take six hours to adjust.
Jet lag is not the same as general fatigue. It occurs when the internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, is no longer synchronised with local time.
Since circadian rhythm is managed by light and dark, jet lag happens because, when we’re abroad, we experience daylight and darkness contrary to what we’re used to.
“When you travel, the outside input (light and dark) conflicts with the internal sleep pressure that creates sleepiness,” says James Wilson aka The Sleep Geek, a sleep expert who works with large organisations.
“The external factors don’t match what’s happening internally, which confuses your body clock and explains why we end up feeling tired during the day and wide awake at night.”
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It also takes longer to adjust if you travel east than west, because your body clock finds it harder to adapt to a shorter day than a longer one.
“It’s easier to adapt if you fly towards America than, say, Russia or China, because it’s easier to make your biological sleep time later than earlier,” Wilson says.
Destinations with a time difference of more than three hours tend to be where travellers start feeling the effects of jet lag. And it’s usually poor sleepers who feel it most. “Good sleepers tend to find the effects of jet lag easier to mitigate than poor sleepers, who are more sensitive to disruptions to their sleep patterns,” Wilson explains.
Little wonder, then, that there’s a growing number of so-called jet lag remedies on the market. From effervescent tablets and aromatherapy pulse point rollers, to light therapy lamps and “photon showers”, there are plenty of products that claim to cure jet lag.
But, what actually works?
Sleeping pills aren’t generally recommended – and can be addictive or simply leave you feeling groggy when you land. And while Bordeaux may help you drift off on the flight, drinking at 35,000ft with the air con blasting will dehydrate you. Buy a bottle of water to sip throughout the flight instead.
Melatonin is the hormone released by the body in the evening to let your brain know it's time to sleep. When our body clock is out of sync, we produce melatonin at the wrong time. Some travellers take melatonin as a supplement to help drift off while abroad. But it isn’t available over the counter in the UK and the NHS does not recommend melatonin supplements for jet lag because there isn't enough evidence that they work.
But there are some simple tricks that can help reduce the effects of jet lag. It’s usually recommended to stick to UK time if your trip is short (less than three days) and eat and sleep at the times you would at home.
If you’re going long-haul for longer, Wilson recommends booking a flight that lands at dusk. “It’s normal to want an extra day of your holiday, so you book a flight that lands early in the morning – but then you have a whole day of your body being incredibly confused and it’s harder to go to sleep,” he says. “Your body will adjust to the new time zone faster if you go to bed soon after your flight and start the new day fresh.”
It’s a good idea to get into your new local time as soon as you get on the plane. Adjust your watch and eat to coincide with new meal times. Another way to prepare is by going to bed later and waking up later if you’re travelling west – or the opposite if you’re travelling east – a few days before your flight. This will help your body clock get used to its new sleep routine.
Once in your destination, make sure you have plenty of natural light during the day and that your room is dark, or use an eye mask, at night. “This will help your body clock adjust more quickly,” Wilson says. “Taking your own pillowcase can also help because it smells like home, which can make you feel more relaxed so you sleep better.”