Summer is here, holiday season has started and millions of people are jetting off to distant shores. In fact, over 29 million passengers will travel from or to the UK this month and many of those travelling across multiple time zones will experience jet lag.
Neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker describes the impact of jet lag as 'a torturous physiological strain on the brain, and a deep biological stress upon the cells, organs and major systems of the body'.
This can seriously dampen the start of a holiday or make the returning holiday blues even harder to bare. But the good news is there are natural methods to reduce jet lag, as well as some easy practical steps to take to help overcome the symptoms faster.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag, also called circadian desynchrony, is caused when the body’s natural circadian rhythm (the internal body clock) is out of synch with the external environment in a new time zone. The invention of jet planes enabled us to zoom through the sky faster than our body clocks could keep up. The environment provides rhythmic cues that synchronize the internal body clock to the Earth’s 24 hour cycle of light and dark. Jet lag happens when we travel through time zones and the external environment no longer matches up with the body clock.
This confusion between our body clock and a new time zone means we feel very tired in the day and have to fight a strong battle to stay awake because our body clock still thinks it's night time. At night, we struggle to fall asleep or wake in the middle of the night because our body now thinks it's daytime.
In his eye-opening book ‘Why We Sleep’ Matthew Walker explains: ‘The twenty-four hour biological body clock sitting in the middle of your brain is called the suprachiasmatic (pronounced soo-pra-kai-as-MAT-ik) nucleus.’ This, he adds, sits just above the crossing point of the optic nerves that travel from the eyeballs to the brain and here it experiences light signals. The light is what establishes the body’s twenty-four hour and when in a different time zone the differing light signals confuse the internal body clock.
Fortunately, our bodies don’t stay confused forever but it’s not a fast process to adjust to a new timezone. It’s generally understood that it takes a day to adjust for every hour of time difference. That means a whole week is typically needed to fully adjust from the jet lag caused by travel from a time zone that is 7 hours different.
Symptoms of jet lag
The most common symptoms of jet lag are fatigue and insomnia but other physical and emotional symptoms, include anxiety, constipation, reduced alertness, decreased ability to perform mental and physical tasks, dehydration, headaches, increased irritability and feeling lightheaded. Travel by plane and jet lag, followed by poor quality sleep also often leads to low immunity and illness, such as coughs and colds.
How to deal with jet lag?
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the impact of flying through time zones faster than your body can adjust. These fall into two areas: natural products you can use during or after the flight, and practical steps to help the body adjust more quickly.
NATURAL PRODUCTS TO HELP WITH JET LAG
Homeopathy has a proven record in helping with jet lag and there are a number of products on the market that specifically deal with this time zone confusion. Helen Jefferies, homeopath, suggests choosing one of three homeopathics based on what symptoms of jet lag you experience.On her website she suggests:
Arnica, if you are feeling fuzzy headed and have stiff aching muscles after a flight.
Cocculus if you feel as if you have vertigo, are disorientated or feel tired and wired but can’t sleep.
Nux vomica – Feeling like you are hungover after your flight? If you are tired, chilly, irritable and nauseous then try this remedy.
Helen explains: ‘choose your remedy based on your unique symptoms with dosage 1 x 30c pill every 3-4 hours during the journey.’
These can be continued to be taken after the flight if symptoms of jet lag persist or if you were not able to start taking them during the flight.
A popular over-the-counter product that combines different homeopathics is No Jet Lag. This has been personally recommended to me by people that regularly fly to the UK from Australia and the US and studies into its use show it reduces jet lag. It contains Arnica 30C, Bellis Perennis 30C (Daisy), Chamomilla 30C (Chamomile), Ipecacuanha 30C (Ipecac), Lycopodium 30C (Club moss).
2. Nasal spray to keep the passage moist
A dry nose and throat disrupts the body's natural drainage system which moves viruses and bacteria down to the stomach to be flushed away. Low air humidity in planes can cause damage to the mucous membranes. These can dry out and become sore. There is also a good chance that the dry air on a flight will cause cracks in the mucous membrane, leaving you susceptible to the bugs and germs that circulate on planes.
A natural nasal spray is a good way to avoid this and the related effects of jet lag. Xlear is a good natural option that contains saline solution, Xylitol and grapefruit seed extract. Another good choice is Flight Spray, which prevents a dry nose. There are other nasal sprays on the market but many of these contain the synthetic ingredient oxymetazoline which can actually dry out and irritate the nasal passages. I would recommend using a nasal spray with only natural ingredients.
3. Sniff your way out of jet lag with essential oils
Aromatherapy can help when travelling across time zones. Using calming oils such as lavender, geranium or chamomile can help you to relax and fall asleep if getting to sleep is difficult. Lavender will help you to unwind and sleep at the appropriate time. Add three drops to the bath in the evening, diffuse if you have a diffuser or add a few drops to a tissue and place near your pillow at bedtime. Geranium and chamomile can be used in a diffuser if available or simply inhaled from the bottle.
During the day when it’s all about staying awake, use rosemary, eucalyptus or peppermint oil to help you wake up (or help stay awake). Rosemary is a stimulating nerve tonic which is very uplifting. Add a few drops to a tissue and inhale at regular intervals. The same can be done with eucalyptus and peppermint or they can be inhaled straight from the body.
4. Get the energetic power of crystals
I’ve recently been recommended crystals to help with jet lag. As quantum physicists explain, everything is energy and this applies to crystals too. And the energy of some crystals just happens to help the body deal with the stress of long-haul flights and jet lag.
Black tourmaline is a protective stone that is recommended for its ability to reduce the effects of jet lag. It also is said to help protect from x-ray machines and the ‘crazy energy of fellow-travellers’.
Moonstone is another popular stone, and in folklore was called the ‘traveller’s stone’ for its reputation for being protective during travel. It can protect against jet lag, soothe stress, anxiety and hormonal or menstrual imbalances, as well as dealing with feelings of overwhelm. It’s also believed to bring good fortune!
Simply hold the crystal of choice in your hand or place in a pocket during your travel across time zones.
To relieve jet lag symptoms naturally, the most important thing to do is help your body’s internal clock adjust to its new environment.
5. Light exposure
Managing light exposure is one of the most powerful ways to help your body adjust to the new time zone. Light affects the release of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone that helps you to feel relaxed, tired, and ready for bed. This is released from around 9pm all through the night until morning when natural daylight triggers its decline.
Light exposure is key but equally important is the timing of light exposure.
If you’re travelling west you need exposure to light in the evening and darkness in the morning to help you adjust. If you’re flying east, you need exposure to light in the morning and darkness in the evening to ease the change.
Apps to help you combat jet lag
Knowing exactly when you need light and dark depends on your usual time of sleep and where you are travelling to. If you like the help of technology, then there are apps that will tell you exactly when you need bright light and when you need darkness.
The iPhone app Entrain uses mathematical proven schedules to build a personalised light/dark plan to adjust your body clock in the quickest time possible. The schedules can be a little hard to achieve, such as darkness at 1pm but the schedules are mathematically proven to work.
Alternatively, there is Jet Lag Rooster on Android/iPhone. The app’s sleep calculator is easy to use, with options to input your regular sleep and wake times. The app then creates your schedule of when to have bright light, when to sleep and when to avoid light. Jet Lag Rooster allows you to start the adjustment process on arrival or a few days before departure, which may help prevent jet lag entirely.
Both apps allow you to reschedule if you don’t get the light, darkness or sleep suggested.
This tip might sound a little bit ‘out-there’ but it’s backed up with scientific research as something that can help with sleep and jet lag (not to mention pain). It’s really simple: all you have to do is kick off your shoes and go barefoot on grass, mud or sand.
By baring your feet you soak up the earth’s negative charge and the scientific community believe there are a number of health benefits from this earthing/grounding. A study in the US revealed the positive benefit of physical contact: ‘Reconnection with the Earth's electrons has been found to promote physiological changes and reports of well-being...with the benefits of better sleep and reduced pain.’
7. Trace your meridians
In Chinese medicine, the body is understood to go through a 24 hour energy cycle through 12 meridians where each energy meridian peaks during a particular period of time. In 24 hours, we spend two hours in each of the twelve meridians and end up back where we started, ready to repeat again.
Each meridian has a two hour peak time and 12 hours later a two hour low point. This is called the Horary Cycle or more familiarly circadian rhythm. For example, at 7am to 9am the Stomach meridian is at its most active, where as at 11pm to 1am the Gall Bladder meridian is most active. When we fly through time zones and experience jet lag, the Horary Cycle is out of sync. An easy way to reset this is to trace the 12 meridians to help the body synchronise with the new time zone. This simply means running your fingers or hands over the meridians. This video shows you how to trace your meridians.
8. Coffee and alcohol - know when to avoid
If sipping a prosecco when you board a plane is your thing, then the bad news for you is this is going to make your jet lag symptoms worse. The same goes for coffee. Both drinks should be avoided during the flight and in the hours leading up to the flight.
Instead drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. However, if you’re travelling west scientists have found that having a double espresso when you get to your destination can trick your body clock into thinking it’s an hour earlier and will delay the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. When flying east, avoid coffee except in the morning to help get your body clock back on track.
Unfortunately, alcohol is never going to help with jet lag and sleep but will only make it worse. Avoid in the 3 hours before bedtime. Not great for your social life, but great for combating jet lag.
9. Exercise your way out of jet lag
You might have gone on holiday for some rest and relaxation but it’s exercise that might shake you out of your jet lagged haze. Research suggests exercise helps with time-change adjustments and may speed up the return to normal circadian rhythms, or the internal body clock.
This doesn’t need to be more than a 20-30 brisk walk or jog, the more aerobic the better. This is best done in the morning out in daylight, where possible. Avoid exercise at night if you have travelled east as this will further wake you up.
10. Reduce blue light at night
There's a lot of evidence that blue light, emitted by smartphones, tablets, laptops and eReaders is impacting on the quantity and quality of the sleep we are getting. The light is a signal to the body clock that it is day time, which adds an extra layer of confusion to an already confused body clock when suffering with jet lag.
A study into the use of eReaders before sleep carried out by a group of universities, including Harvard Medical School found:
‘The use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning.’
It’s quite emphatic, devices at bedtime affect sleep and should be avoided when trying to combat jet lag (and at all other times). When struggling to sleep there is a temptation to pick up a tablet or phone in the hope you will feel sleepy soon. But as the research shows, this is a false hope.
A better option would be to read a book, listen to the radio or meditate. I have found the Headspace app to be brilliant for guided meditation and helping with sleep. They have dedicated sessions for sleep, which help with unwinding, relaxing and sleeping. In fact, you might just nod off during the meditation.
Are you ready to fly?
So if you’re getting ready for a long-haul flight this summer, travelling through multiple time zones, think ahead about which of these 10 tips you can incorporate into your travels. Some are no-brainers. They’re easy and free, such as earthing. Drinking water on the flight, rather than alcohol. This isn’t only free, it will potentially save you money. Take on board (excuse the pun) as many of these tips as you practically can and enjoy beating jet lag and quickly adjusting to your new time zone. Happy travels. Let me know what works for you.