Several months ago, I took the Classic Journeys trip to the Amalfi Coast. Upon my return, my kids were excited to hear all about it, but my teenaged son noticed right away that I seemed a bit…off. “Jet lag,” I told him. He asked me what it felt like. I thought about this for a second.
“You know when it’s late, and you’re sitting on the couch watching a movie, and you have those moments when you start to nod off but you catch yourself? Imagine feeling like you do in that split second, but it’s constant.”
“Ugh,” he said.
Ugh is right. Jet lag is the price we modern travelers pay for being able to cross entire oceans in a matter of hours, instead of days. Unfortunately, jet lag is unavoidable, but if you understand what causes it, you can lessen its effects.
What is Jet Lag, Exactly?
To help lessen the effects of jet lag, it helps to understand what jet lag is. We all have an internal clock of sorts, called the circadian rhythm, that provides biological signals to what we’re supposed to be doing at any given hour - including sleeping. When we drive or take a boat or train to a new time zone, we don’t feel the effects because the adjustment is a gradual one.
When we zip over several time zones, our bodies aren’t able to keep up, at least at first. It’s right there in the name: the lag between what time it is in the country we’re currently in, and what time our bodies “think” it is.
Jet lag is generally worse if you’re flying east (say, from San Diego California to Rome, Italy), but it can also affect travelers flying westward. Along with the acting of traveling long distances in a relatively short amount of time, there are other factors that can exacerbate jet lag.
Altitude, Pressure and Jet Lag
One of the great boons of modern air travel is that plane cabins are pressurized, allowing airliners to fly at high altitudes. But if you live at an altitude significantly lower than 8,000 feet, you’re still likely to feel the effects of being at a higher-than-normal altitude.
That’s because most aircraft are pressurized to simulate being at 8,000 feet above sea level – which is roughly 3,000 feet higher than the elevation of Denver, Colorado. If you’re not used to being at that altitude, you may be more likely to get headaches due to taking in less oxygen - which in turn will intensify your jet lag.
Dehydration and Jet Lag
The air in a pressurized plane is pretty dry, due to both the pressurization and air filtration systems. Since there’s less humidity, it’s much easier to become dehydrated. The effects of dehydration on the body are numerous – your skin can feel dry, your eyes may itch, you’ll feel thirsty, and you may even get headaches and feel dizzy. For many flyers, an alcoholic beverage or two before or during a flight is part of our air travel routine; unfortunately, alcohol has a dehydrating effect and can make these symptoms worse. Some travelers like to have coffee or tea, thinking that caffeine will stave off the effects of jet lag – in fact, caffeine also has a dehydrating effect and ironically can make your jet lag worse.
Other Factors that Make Jet Lag Worse
We’d all like to be in the best possible mental and physical health when we board the plane, but of course, that’s not always possible. How we’re feeling when we take off can make our jet lag worse. Stress and illness are two big contributors to jet lag. Even for the most experienced flyer, the stress of travel can make it difficult to have a restful flight. And if you’re fighting a cold, or even just getting over being sick, you’re more likely to have a worse experience with jet lag.
Reducing the Effects of Jet Lag
Until scientists develop a jet lag cure, jet lag will remain an unfortunate part of international travel. But there are steps you can take to manage it, and even speed up your recovery time. Start with your flight plans.
It’s usually possible to book a flight that arrives at your destination during the daytime. It’s much easier to sleep on a plane at night; during a nighttime Atlantic crossing, you’ll have at least 5 hours to get some shut-eye. And if you can, pick the kind of plane you’ll be flying on. New model aircraft like the Airbus A350 and A380 and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner can make it much easier to sleep - along with a bit more legroom, they feature state-of-the-art air conditioning, circulation and pressurization systems that can actually reduce the negative effects of air travel on the body.
Next, stay hydrated.
The planes mentioned above all tout improved humidification systems that can alleviate those symptoms. Still, it’s important to drink lots of water before and during your flight and avoid alcohol and coffee, both of which can cause you to become dehydrated quicker. And avoid eating unhealthy, fatty foods, both in the hours before your flight and while you're airborne – those can also lead to dehydration.
Finally, reset your “sleep clock”. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, whether it’s South Africa or southeast Asia, you might be tempted to catch a quick nap before setting out on your adventure. Don’t! Your body needs to readjust to the current time zone and get itself on a new sleep schedule. You might be tempted to down a few espressos, but that’s a quick fix. Instead, get outside - fresh air and especially sunlight will help your body readjust to the new time zone. Move around!
A quick bit of exercise will get your heart rate up and cause an increase in naturally stimulating endorphins. And the psychological boost of moving through the streets of a fantastic new city will help you to get out of your foggy state of mind. Hold off on going to sleep until the locals do; you’ll find that you’ll feel much better the next morning, and will be ready to resume your Classic Journeys adventure!