Jet lag – the sluggish, bloated, and very confused feeling your body gets when you fly across time zones, is the cause of several different factors which combine to basically merry-go-round your brainpiece and insides rendering you incapable of enjoying your trip after you land.
It’s not just being in a new time zone. Of course, your sleep schedule and circadian rhythms are out of wack. But, of almost as much import is how your G.I. tract adjusts to the new environ. Each of your organs – your stomach, kidney’s, intestines, adjusts to a new and different eating schedule at different speeds. It’s like having different-sized gears turning the wrong directions at the wrong speeds inside you. Yikes. The Washington Post writes:
"Jet lag isn’t [merely] a lag between you and the outside world; instead, it’s a lag between different parts of your body," explains Thomas Wehr, chief of the biological rhythms section at the National Institute of Mental Health. "If you’re flying east to Europe, your brain could be in Ireland, and your liver could be in Iceland, so things are not cycling in sync with each other."
Sounds about correct (read: dizzying). So, how can one battle the symptoms of jet lag, or, better, preempt it all together? Probably you can’t to a 100% efficiency, but there are several things you can do to mitigate its drag on your vacation or your return.
Manage your light
The most important thing to do is to manage your exposure to darkness and natural light. We’re evolutionarily predisposed to respond to the natural rythms of the sun and the moon, and not just in a sleep schedule way. It goes deeper, obviously. So, what you want to do is manage your light and darkness in a way consistent with where you’re going to be. That means, close your windows and put on a sleep mask when the Sun goes down in the city of your destination. Similarly, buy one of these portable devices to undergo bright-light, or phototherapy. The ideas is to trick your body into getting the sunlight it would be getting in the city of your destination.
Oh surprise! If you want to stay awake and feel alert, drink some caffeine. A recent study by pitted three groups of nine U.S. Air Force Reservists against a no-sleep-till Paris flight all the way from Texas. That’s 7 time zones, and nobody was allowed to sleep. As they approached some were given slow-dose caffeine, and some placebo, and (duh) the ones given caffeine were more alert and mentally acute upon arrival and throughout that day. They did have a little trouble sleeping the next night, but that’s the price you pay when you attempt better living through chemistry. Speaking of…
Use Viagra (seriously)
Well, sort of seriously. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, in hamsters, administration of sildenafil (the active ingredient in the race-ready Viagra), caused a shift in circadian rhythms. More to the point, if you time it just right, you’ll be alert as you’re arriving at your destination, and the (ahem), alert-and-at-attention when you get into your hotel room. The precipitating paddy-cake will likely be physically exhausting, but will definitely release a variety of chemicals into your brain, some of which (prolactin and serotonin at least) that will make you sleepy, and put you to bed at the right time of day for the time zone you’re in. Plus, you totally get to have yourself some sex.
Exercise at the right times
Some people suggest “exercising” on the plane by getting more movement, doing calisthenics in your chair, or walking up and down the aisle. For anybody with a VO2 max, this seems a bit foppish and embarrassing, really. The only thing you’ll accomplish here is annoying your fellow airtravelers. Any legitimate exercise – meaning any that is going to significantly effect your internal chemistry and, hence, your alertness – is going to take at least 20 minutes. So, unless you exercise to the point of exhaustion (possible, but difficult for most of us in a hotel room or otherwise entangled in travel), light exercise of 30 minutes to an hour will more likely raise your metabolism and energize you. Either before or after getting on the plane, depending on when its best for you to be awake, go for a light jog.
Don’t drink and fly
Alcohol’s effects are multiplied by altitude. Add that to the ever-drying effects of being under the recycled air fans that we’ve grown to hate in all classes of all international flights. This, friends, is a recipe for a hangover so big and tough that it eats other hangovers for breakfast (with way too much hot sauce). You may think a few drinks to help you relax in your cramped seat and pass out in time are the ticket, but you’re doing yourself a disservice in the long run. (Ed. Note: Pff. Whatever.)
Of course, there’s always this little gem.