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    Understanding Jet Lag and Getting Your (Circadian) Rhythm Back

    Understanding Jet Lag and Getting Your (Circadian) Rhythm Back

    When asked what the most stressful part of travel is, the overwhelming answers are airport traffic, checking bags, security, flight delays or cancellations. However, depending on how far you travel, there is one unavoidable complication that is often overlooked or underestimated: jet lag. We often expect the stress of travel to alleviate when we get to our destination, but the gradual effects of jet lag can persist for days, sometimes even weeks! 

    Regardless if your trip is for business or pleasure, you want your body to feel back to normal as soon as possible. In order to prepare for and adjust to travel across time zones, you need to know how your circadian rhythm is related to jet lag and what you can do to help get it back on track.

    What is Jet Lag?

    Jet lag, also known as desynchronosis, is exactly what its technical name sounds like: a desynchronization occuring with the body. When we travel to different time zones, especially for longer periods of time, our body is thrown out of sync with its internal clock: our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm helps determine our body’s wake/sleep cycle and regulates the hormones that keep us functioning on a normal, daily schedule. Our circadian rhythm operates on a near 24 hour cycle and uses cues from the external world—like light and dark–to help signal to our body when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake. When we travel to different time zones, our brain may be conscious of the time difference and we can adjust our social schedule to adapt, but internally, our body can’t keep up.

    Our circadian rhythm cannot adjust automatically; it can take days, or even weeks if the distance is drastic, to shift from its previously regulated 24 hour cycle to a new one. So, for a few days, you are inevitably tasked with fighting against your internal clock to operate on the schedule of your destination. During the desynchronized adjustment period, our body continues to send us signals based off of our old clock, but those signals could be multiple hours ahead or behind of the time zone that you’ve traveled to. It might be 11pm GMT in London and your British friends are heading to bed, but if you traveled from Colorado it might still feel like 4pm MST and your body will still feel wide awake for hours. This is why jet lag is labeled as a temporary sleeping disorder, because it first and foremost affects our sleep patterns.

    What are the Effects of Jet Lag?

    Most significantly, jet lag affects our sleep. It’s very hard to achieve a full night of quality sleep when the body is sending us the wrong signals at the wrong time. We are used to our body releasing hormones that are in alignment with our circadian rhythm, but when thrown out of sync during jet lag, those hormones are now being sent during the wrong time of day and it can result in us feeling sleepy during mid-morning or alert at late-evening. When our hormones become imbalanced in this way—especially when coupled with the likelihood that we’re already not getting quality sleep—it can have short-term effects on our health. We might feel less alert, groggy or fatigued, disoriented, or even moody. Jet lag can even affect our appetite; we may get hungry in between meal times and/or not be hungry at all at a mealtime. During these phases when our body is telling us to feel the wrong thing at the wrong time, we have to rely on our adrenaline to keep us going—which may allow us to visit the historical monument on our sightseeing list—but it could ultimately make us even more tired or irritable. When all or even some of these effects compile, it can be hard to completely present throughout the day and enjoy your trip as thoroughly as possible.

    What, if anything, can we do to combat Jet Lag?

    It is very hard to ignore the effects of jet lag, and that can be irritating when we’re trying to make the most out of a temporary vacation in a different time zone. While there’s not much we can do to prevent the desynchronization of our circadian rhythm all together, there are some things we can do to accelerate the adjustment period and keep ourselves as sharp as possible. 

    Perhaps the easiest thing we can do for ourselves is to think about how we can use diet and exercise to our advantage rather than detriment. When you exercise, you raise your body temperature and heart rate, which is a signal to your body that it’s daytime and that increase in heart rate can rejuvenate your energy level. It can also be beneficial to think about what sustenance you give your body. Drink plenty of water and avoid caffeine and alcohol during evenings—the last thing you want to do is further disrupt your quality of sleep by drinking too much caffeine or alcohol. The most beneficial thing you can do to help speed up your circadian rhythm adjustment time takes a bit more effort.

    A major factor that affects your circadian rhythm is light. Your circadian rhythm pays a lot of attention to the light you get each day and the hours that it is present; it uses that information to release signals to the body about when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. Knowing that, there is a way to use time and light to your advantage! With the help of a bright light, you can somewhat ‘trick’ your body into thinking you’re in a new time zone before you even leave. You can adjust the time you wake up and the time you go to sleep to be closer to the time zone you’re traveling to. That might mean waking up an hour earlier and using a bright light, instead of natural light, to signal to your body that it is morning, or using a bright light in the evening to signal to your body that you should wake up later. It may be hard to commit to waking up earlier in the days leading up to your trip or to give up a glass of wine at dinner once you’ve made it to your destination, but it will help your body recognize and adjust to the new time zone more quickly. If you’re interested in trying to use a bright light, we recommend checking out Verlilux’s HappyLight products. While these tips and techniques are not a complete remedy for jet lag, try one the next time you travel and see if it makes a difference for you!


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