Trick your body into beating the jet lag blues
Battle the dreaded disconnect by training yourself with apps, sleep cycles and fasting
Three and a half weeks in India plus 15 hours flying equalled one wicked case of jet lag for travel blogger Janice Waugh.
“It wasn’t just a matter of waking up early and not being able to get on a schedule to sleep,” said the 59-year-old, recalling a miserable period after returning to Toronto from a trip in 2012. “It felt flu-like ... nausea, tiredness, achiness, lethargy.”
Her doctor confirmed what she’d suspected: she had a nasty case of jet lag. It lasted three weeks.
Jet lag is loosely defined as what happens to your body when your internal clock is misaligned with the environment you’re in, said Azadeh Yadollahi, a scientist with the University Health Network’s Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.
The internal clock is controlled by circadian rhythm, a biological process that tells your body when to go to sleep, she said. The clock is sensitive to daylight, which signals to your body you should be awake, and to darkness, which prompts your brain to release melatonin, a hormone that causes drowsiness, said Yadollahi.
There are strategies to combat jet lag, but it affects different people in different ways and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, she said.
Generally speaking, the more time zones you cross, the worse it gets, and travelling east is typically worse than travelling west, thanks to our bodies’ poor ability to adjust to short days versus longer ones, she said.
It also takes roughly one day to adjust to a one-hour time change, said Colin Shapiro, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. This means that a visit to Melbourne, where the time difference from Toronto is 14 hours, will take you two weeks to acclimate to.
It may be a painful, no matter what. Waugh, who’s travelled abroad tens of times since 2012, still says the India jet lag is the worst she’s ever had. “Nothing comes close,” she said. We spoke with Shapiro, Yadollahi, registered dietitian Abby Langer and flight attendant Dominic Lavoie to get the expert tips on how to deal with jet lag:
Melatonin is a hormone linked to our sleep and wake cycles produced naturally in the brain’s pineal gland. Over-the-counter supplements of melatonin are thought to be safe and effective in treating sleep problems in frequent flyers and travellers, though experts want to see more studies done. Shapiro recommends taking melatonin to ease into travel.
His prescription is as follows: before you travel, figure out the time you’ll want to go to sleep at your destination, subtract two or three hours, determine that time in your current time zone and take melatonin as per packaging directions at that time.
For instance, if you’re travelling to Melbourne and want to sleep at 10 p.m. there, subtract three hours (bringing you to 7 p.m.), and figure out the equivalent in your local time. This means, if you’re in Toronto, you’ll be taking melatonin at 5 a.m. Keep taking the melatonin for five days — two days before travel at the local time, and one during and two more while you’re there in the equivalent destination time — to ease into the different time zone. Sleep hacks Sleeping when it feels like 5 a.m. is tricky, but flight attendants’ jobs depend on it. “For flight attendants, sleep is all about safety ... You can’t be drowsy,” said Dominic Lavoie, a CUPE communications chairperson and flight attendant with 18 years experience.
When flight attendants arrive at a destination, but need to fly again 24 hours later, they do everything they can to better their chances of a good night’s sleep, he said. They request hotel rooms far from loud elevators and ice machines, call in advance to make sure there’s no ongoing construction near the hotel and go to extremes to keep out light, including using pant hangers to pin curtains closed and wedging chairs against the gaps where light peeks though.
“You kind of have to fool your body,” said Lavoie.
He also uses a light therapy device caller Re-Timer to trick his circadian rhythm into thinking it’s still daytime during night shifts. Sleep calculators Sleep apps and online calculators can help you determine what time you need to sleep at and when you need to expose yourself to daylight, all by plugging in your travel details.
Yadollahi said sleep apps could be helpful, so long as they generate accurate data. Popular apps include Jet Lag Rooster and Re-Timer Jet Lag Calculator. Both are available for free at the App Store. Fasting Eschew airplane food altogether. A 2008 Harvard University study published in Science Magazine suggests fasting for 16 hours can recalibrate your body’s “feeding” clock, a secondary clock that links mealtime routines to your sleep schedule.
This means that by withholding food, you could reboot the clock and speed up your body’s ability to adjust to a new time zone.
“It’s definitely worth a try, “said registered dietitian Abby Langer, “but some people may find it difficult to go that long without food.”
Instead, she suggests bringing your own food on the plane. And even eating at the mealtimes of your destination.
During travel blogger Janice Waugh’s trip to India in 2012, she was hit with a wicked case of jet lag that lasted three weeks and felt like the flu. Experts say it takes about one day to adjust to a one-hour time change.