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Jet Lag 101

by Vanessa Ullman

photography courtesy of Carina Lee

We’ve all been there: staring at the ceiling, checking our phone at 4:00 a.m., feeling like we could start our day at any second. And no, we’re not early risers.

Jet leg, or “a condition characterized by various psychological and physiological effects like fatigue and irritability,” is something that most travelers have to endure. From feeling tired mid-day to staying awake at all hours in the night, this post-vacation “hangover” is worth investigating.

Although sometimes associated with a lack of sleep, especially on long flights, jet leg is actually not caused by a lack of shut-eye. According to Dr. Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, jet lag is centered around the “misalignment of our circadian rhythm.” This does make sense, as jet lag can make someone both tired and awake at different points in the day.

“Our body has a clock and becomes disoriented and confused,” Dr. Avidan said. This can also explain why you might feel hungry at seemingly odd hours, as your body clock and stomach are still in a different time zone.

Despite the effects of jet lag, the symptoms are often not detrimental to one’s voyage. But, if you want to get a head start on exploring a new place without worrying about your body clock, try a few of these tricks.

An easy first step is to change your watch to the new time once you board the plane. Even if you are still on the East Coast, having your watch set to London time can prepare you for a five-hour time shift. If you want to take it a step further, adding the new time zone on your phone can help you imagine what the time will be when you step off the plane.

Another quick fix is to stop drinking alcohol or caffeine a few hours before you go to sleep. These stimulants will only keep you up at night and are not a good combination with jet lag that already hinders your sleep schedule.

While we typically associate jet lag with overseas trips or study abroad, some students who live far from Boston experience it every time they go back home. Katie Edson (CAS ’19) has mastered this “art,” as the senior has gone home to Seattle, Washington, for several winter and spring breaks.

“I usually take flights at weird hours so I don’t know if I’m tired from jet lag or from being up since 3:00am for a flight,” said Edson. “I have to force myself to be on the correct schedule.”

Shirley Peng (QST ’20) has just experienced this, as she recently moved to London for a BU study abroad program for the spring semester. After a few days in England, she has figured out that hanging out with other people has helped cure her jet lag.

“Do something to avoid being alone and watching Netflix,” said Peng. Although this answer is easy for some, others might not want to let go of their TV watching habits on vacation.

Unlike Edson and Peng, Misaki Kobayashi (SAR ’20) finds that the only way to not get jet lag is to sleep. After traveling back and forth for summer and winter breaks to her home in Osaka, Japan, Kobayashi has figured out a system of traveling that works best for her.

“Japan time is 14 hours earlier, so I don’t sleep the night before [my flight], so I can knock myself out on the plane and when I get back,” said Kobayashi. While she makes the trek back and forth only once or twice a year, her method might work best for longer flights, where the time difference is substantial.

From weekend jaunts to month-long trips, jet lag affects us all in different ways. While there are certainly other ways to treat it, such as taking melatonin on long flights, it’s clear that there are also small tricks to use that can improve your sleep and wake up cycles.

If we all experience it, then maybe the key to jet lag is just managing and embracing it.

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