by Chloë Hudson
Photography by Deanna Kilma-Rajchel
Destination picked. Flight booked. Bag packed. Now what about jet lag?
Whether it is across the globe or across the country, frequent fliers are all too familiar with jet lag and its effect on sleep and alertness. Rapid travel across multiple time zones confuses the body’s circadian rhythm, also known as the “biological clock,” which follows the standard 24-hour cycle and responds to light and darkness.
The farther one travels, the greater the impact on the individual. Falling asleep on the white sand beach you had pinned above your desk all semester, or forcing those friends on your screensaver to eat a meal with you at 3:00 a.m., is not ideal. Yet, with only long weekends and the occasional short break to choose from, planning a trip that is both far and feasible is not quite as easy as it may seem.
But inevitably suffering from jet lag does not mean that your dream vacation is impossible. Rather, it simply calls for planning ahead, taking other travelers’ advice with a grain of salt and experiencing first-hand what works best for you.
What not to do? A great example is played out in Modern Family’s episode “Express Yourself,” in which Phil and Claire Dunphey book a last-minute flight to Paris for the following day.
Claire fears that “by the time [she and Phil] got there [they] would be so messed up on the time change [they] would just wander around in like a nauseous fog.”
The two characters decide that by immediately changing the time on their watches and pulling an all-nighter, they can quickly acclimate and, therefore, make the most out of their three days in “The City of Lights.” However, this rash decision proves to be much harder than they both anticipate, and the couple try everything from drinking cups of coffee and staying active with yoga to wearing masks and scaring each other around the house. The episode ends with Phil throwing Claire over his shoulder as he wheels his suitcase out of the house and down the driveway, only one half of the team ultimately successful in fighting jet lag.
Although the Dunpheys fail in their attempts, they only just miss the mark; consuming caffeine and continuing moving, among other methods, can easily be manipulated to trick the body’s circadian clock.
A research study conducted at the University of Colorado distributed regulated doses of caffeine to test subjects for 49 consecutive nights, and found that the coffee drinkers’ circadian rhythms were delayed significantly—between 40 minutes and 105 minutes. These results suggest that coffee consumption can help reset the circadian clock; travelers flying westward can drink coffee to stay awake and make up for the hours they lose, but the beverage’s insomniac effects can make the adjustment even more difficult for eastbound flyers.
Moreover, engaging in endorphin-producing exercise can help fight tiredness. A quick workout not only promotes a good night’s sleep and reduces irritability, but a walk, jog or run outside can be the perfect way to see the sights. When flying, even simple ankle or wrist rotations and a back-and-forth down the narrow aisle are all effective ways to stay active. And if you want to beat the masses of your jetlagged-counterparts through security, why not hit the stairs and race them as they as they take the escalator, or pick up your pace and pass the people on the moving walkway through the airport.
The greatest influence on the circadian clock, however, is light exposure. The fastest way to adjust to a new time zone is to understand this influence and how it relates to the timings of your particular trip. Because jet lag results from the body’s rhythm no longer lining up with its environment, triggering phase shifts—advances or delays in this rhythm—by seeking and avoiding light at essential times, can reduce effects. In fact, several companies, such as British Airways, are taking the issue of jetlag upon themselves and have produced online calculators that take multiple factors into account and generate a plan with traveler-specific advice to help minimize jet lag.