All of us have an internal timekeeping system (known as our circadian rhythm). This "clock," is controlled by the hypothalamus, a small piece of our lower brain. The hypothalamus works with our eyes to determine what time of day it is and, based on the light it sees, will secrete hormones to either help us sleep, or stay awake. When we fly across a time zone, the amount of light our eyes take in changes. That causes the hypothalamus to get disoriented. As a result, it may start secreting sleep hormones when it would normally secrete hormones to keep us awake. That weird shift can make your body feel confused and out of sorts, a feeling known as jet lag.
One of the most common symptoms of jet lag is feeling like everything is happening at the wrong time. You're hungry when you normally wouldn't be. Bedtime seems too early (or late). And you're awake when you shouldn't be. Other signs include:
- Difficulty concentrating or mild confusion
- Nausea or an upset stomach
- Runny nose
- Aching muscles
- Disrupted menstrual cycle (most common in people who travel frequently)
Because jet lag is so disruptive (and in some cases, unhealthy for our bodies), scientists have been trying to discover new ways to avoid it. Some tips include:
If you know you'll be crossing a time zone, start shifting your sleep/awake schedule before you hop on the plane. Go to bed a little earlier or later, depending on how many hours you'll be losing or gaining. This will make the time zone transition easier.
Recent studies suggest getting natural light after landing on a cross-time zone flight will help stimulate your body to secrete more of the "awake" hormone, so you'll feel less tired than if you hung out inside.
Dehydration is a common side effect of flying (largely because of the change in air pressure and because plane air is recycled). The problem? Dehydration can enhance feelings of sluggishness. So drink lots of water before, during and after a flight.
Some of the most compelling research into jet lag suggests by changing your eating patterns from three meals a day to five or six small ones, your body will be able to adapt more easily to a time change. This is largely because your body won't have an established eating pattern to be disrupted.
These diuretics will not only enhance feelings of dehydration, they will also make it harder for your hypothalamus to figure out what time of day it is.
Napping whenever you feel sleepy (even if it's only for 15 minutes) will give your body the rest it needs to cope with a time change and will give you a burst of energy (probably when you need it most).
Walk around the plane mid-flight and be sure to explore the city as soon as you check into your hotel. Exercising your body will make it easier to fall asleep at night, and will get your blood flowing (so you'll have more energy).
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