Lose the Jet Lag with Light
Nodding off in New York? Snoozing in Sri Lanka? Comatose in Canada? You’re not alone. Jet Lag is a modern phenomenon which affects millions of people each year, and makes travelling just that little bit more difficult. We say no more! Although we can’t offer a complete cure, we can give you this helpful guide to jet lag and how light can help ease the symptoms.
What is Jet Lag?
Jet Lag is the feeling of tiredness and disorientation after a long flight, particularly those flying either East or West. It is caused by travelling over time zones as a person’s body clock can not automatically switch to the new time, causing disorientation and lethargy from waking at odd times and meal times not matching up with what your body is telling you.
Symptoms can include: trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, lethargy, reduced alertness levels, less co-ordination, gastrointestinal problems, and changes in appetite and body temperature.
Many people feel that travelling West is easier, as it is easier to stay up later than to go to sleep earlier, but every person’s different. Jet Lag also seems to hit older people and shift workers (whose body clocks are already out-of-sync with the daylight) much worse.
Why is light a possible cure?
Light is great for battling jet lag because it is the primary external cue that sets our body clock, scientifically known as the circadian rhythm. This rhythm is important, not only because it tells us when to sleep and when to wake up, but also because it regulates loads of different hormones in the body. This is why appetite and body temperature are affected as well as sleep, as the hormones regulating them have also got to adjust.
Scientists predict that it takes one day of recovery for every hour flown East or West. However, using light therapy, this can change to one day for every 2 to 3 hours flown, reducing recovery time which means you have more time to spend either enjoying your holiday or being alert in your business meeting. Light is particularly effective for those crossing 3 to 6 time zones, as this is when major symptoms begin to appear but over 6 hours, some light therapy can be detrimental as it changes the natural process.
Excitingly, researchers at the University of Manchester have recently found that it is not simply light that changes our internal clock, but also the light colour. In fact, the colour of the light might be more important than the brightness, which previously was thought to be the only cue. By conducting studies on mice, they found that their body clock’s were much more sensitive and receptive to changes between blue and yellow colours than to brightness, which means that new, even more effective light therapies can be developed.
How can we use light to help?
To help prevent jet lag, you can either begin to change your body clock before or after arrival. Many choose to change this after arrival, as it is much more difficult to change your home life around a new sleep cycle.
One important thing to remember is that these are simply recommendations, and that if you find it difficult to fall asleep at a certain time, the stress of trying to fall asleep can keep you awake even longer. Make sure you are completely relaxed before bed and aren’t clock-watching as this will just make you more stressed and unable to sleep.
If you want to change your body clock before you arrive at your destination, first you need to work out how many time zones you are crossing. This is how many days before travel you need to begin resetting your body clock, so for example, if you are travelling across 5 time zones, you need to start 5 days before you travel.
If you are travelling East, you need to try and go to sleep one hour earlier and awaken one hour earlier each day. You should seek light as soon as you wake up, whether it be natural or from a light box, as this will boost your energy levels.
If you are travelling West, you need to stay awake an hour later and awaken one hour later each day. You should seek light in the evenings, to help you keep awake.
Some sources say that you should try and sleep, especially if you are arriving in the daytime. This means that light levels on the plane should be reduced as much as you can, such as closing the windows or getting a sleep mask, as this will help create a better sleep environment.
Other good tricks are to stay hydrated and avoid alcohol during the flight as these can exacerbate symptoms. Also the air is drier in the plane due to the altitude and so getting, and staying hydrated is extra important.
If you are changing your body clock upon arrival, this requires a similar approach to the Before section. Experts say you shouldn’t try and jump straight into a new sleep cycle, as this can simply turn into more of a struggle, and confuses your body more.
Also the NHS recommend you stay outdoors as much as possible during the day, as this exposes your body to the natural light which will help reset your body clock quicker. This means you should avoid bright lights at night, even if it means putting down your phone, as this will make it easier for your body to sleep.
App Training for Sleep?
“There’s an app for that” is a phrase which appears more and more often, and jet lag is no exception. Although there are several on the market, Entrain made by the University of Michigan actually sends your information back anonymously to the University to help them with further research into jet lag and how to solve this problem.
This is also one of the more complex apps which means the readings and schedules are more likely to help, and is one of the few that allows you to adjust to whether or not you have a lamp box or not, which adjusts the schedule accordingly.
Short-Term Effects of Light Therapy
- Enhanced alertness- useful when trying to navigate an airport or new city
- Better mood- no one wants to be grumpy, especially if they are travelling on holiday. Light can improve mood for a short time which can help get you through the hours till bed time!
- Better ability to perform certain tasks- similar to alertness, this can be really useful at the beginning of your trip
The long-term effects are basically a shift in your body clock’s rhythm to the new time zone, and a reduction in the disorientation and tiredness that comes with jet lag.
Other things that are reported to help with jet lag are:
- Melatonin- although not fully endorsed yet, some people say that taking a small dose of melatonin (sleep hormone) can help regulate your body clock. Talk to your Doctor before trying this though to check that it is safe for you to take, and in what dosage.
- Keeping hydrated- already mentioned, but the air in a plane is much drier than on land which means you have to drink more to stay hydrated, and drinking the right amount of water will make you feel much better in general
- Eat sensibly- much like above, this will help you feel much better as it helps keep your body as healthy as it can be, and heavy food can make gastrointestinal problems worse, so eating light foods before and during travel is wise.
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More about the research from the University of Manchester: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=14321
A walkthrough of the Entrain app and some of its functions: http://entrain.math.lsa.umich.edu/learn.html
NHS resources: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Jet-lag/Pages/Introduction.aspx