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“Five hours’ New York jet lag and you wake up in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.”
“Dire and ever-circling wolves”—that’s how novelist William Gibson describes jet lag.
But how and when does it occur, what other health problems can be caused by frequent travel, and what can you do prevent or minimise these?
Jet lag in its most basic form is a temporary sleep disorder caused by a disruption of your normal sleep pattern.
The body has its own internal clock, frequently referred to as its “circadian rhythm.” When your circadian rhythm is disturbed by something such as quickly crossing two or more time zones, health problems may result.
For example, if you fly from London to Los Angeles, it may take four or five days to fully recover from jet lag if you haven’t taken precautionary measures. The formula is about one-half day of jet lag symptoms for each time zone you cross going westward, as your body struggles to reset your circadian clock and adjust to California time.
However, jet lag is even worse when you travel from west to east. For your return trip, the formula is about one day of jet lag symptoms for each time zone crossed. This means jet lag symptoms following your trip home from Los Angeles could last six to nine days.
Bear in mind that even if you’re not crossing time zones—travelling south to north from South Africa to Estonia, for example—the many hours spent on a plane can have detrimental effects on your health. In addition, even a long train trip within a single country, from Cornwall to Yorkshire, for example, may lead to symptoms associated with jet lag.
The more time zones you cross and/or the longer you travel, the more likely you are to experience jet lag and similar problems, and the longer and more intense the effects may be.
Jet lag symptoms may include: fatigue, insomnia, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, loss of appetite, headaches, sweating, aches and pains, feelings of weakness, coordination problems, dizziness, heartbeat irregularities, lowered resistance to illnesses and infections, and malaise (a general feeling of being unwell).
Psychological and emotional symptoms may include: anxiety, irritability, memory problems, confusion, inability to concentrate, and depression.
Luckily, jet lag is usually a minor and self-limiting condition, meaning that its symptoms typically go away on their own without the need for medical intervention.
It’s great to go on holidays and rack up frequent flyer miles, but those who travel frequently may be susceptible to some serious health problems, especially if they don’t take precautionary measures.
For example, when someone with a pre-existing heart condition travels, the circadian rhythm is disrupted, plus there’s the overall stress of travel, the high altitudes during the flight, and the long confinement in a small seat. Without preventive measures (and perhaps even with them), these circumstances, individually or combined, may lead to a heart attack.
In addition, if a passenger experiences chronic sleep deprivation due to frequent travel, a stroke may occur if the passenger is predisposed.
Moreover, blood clots may form in the legs of a traveller during an extended air, train, or automobile trip, due to the long period of sitting immobile in a cramped space with minimal leg room. This type of blood clot is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and the longer the trip, the greater the risk.
The DVT clot may dissolve and disappear on its own. But in more severe cases, it can cause pain and swelling in the limbs. Worse still, a DVT clot may break off and travel to the blood vessels of the lungs, causing a blockage of an artery there, which is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). Severe cases of PE may even lead to death.
Fortunately for most travellers, severe health complications resulting from long-duration travel are rare. Even more fortunately, there are pre-travel measures that can reduce complications.
Four or more days before your trip, start shifting your sleeping and eating times to match those at your destination. If possible, set your watch to the time zone of your journey’s end. Upon arrival, immediately start to eat and sleep according to local timetables.
When you can, travel at night. You’ll be more likely to sleep than during a morning or afternoon trip, and you’ll arrive refreshed.
Proper hydration is one of the easiest and best preventive measures against jet lag and other travel-related health issues. Some people don’t drink liquids before or during a flight so they won’t have to use the loo. This is a mistake. Start drinking lots of water the day before your trip, and continue during travel.
Stay away from coffee, tea, and cola drinks during the twelve to twenty-four hours before your trip. Drink decaffeinated beverages instead. Caffeine will keep you awake during the trip and make it harder to get your body on schedule when you arrive.
A group of American researchers contend that pre-flight eating at a time in that puts you in sync with your destination time can prevent jet lag.
And some Chicago biologists suggests alternating moderate feasting and moderate fasting on pre-departure days. Feast three days before, fast two days before, feast one day before, fast on the travel day (go for those peanut snacks on the plane instead of the whole meals), and then eat in synch with the local schedule when you arrive.
Drink eight ounces of water or more for each hour of travel, and keep drinking once you arrive—even if you’re not thirsty.
Many travellers enjoy a drink on the plane or train as it relieves travel anxiety and helps them relax. For a long-haul flight, however, try to avoid or at least limit your consumption of beer, wine, and spirits. The alcohol exacerbates dehydration, a major cause of jet lag.
If you didn’t sleep during the trip, opt for a snooze soon after you arrive. Travel is a stressful and tiring ordeal for most of us, so the more rest you give your body, the fewer problems you’ll have with jet lag and similar issues.
Even if you’re not holidaying in sunny Spain, spend some time outside when you arrive. Being outdoors will help your body reset its clock to match your surroundings, even on a cloudy day.
It’s a good idea to schedule sessions with an osteopath both before and after your trip, especially for an intercontinental flight or hours-long train or car travel.
Long periods of sitting on a plane, in a train, or in an automobile can strain your neck and lower back, and they may have other detrimental health effects, as well.
As Australian osteopath Dr. Bec Ellul puts it, “Long plane rides and waiting times may often affect our health, and it’s important to think about a few things before checking into your [long] flight.”
Our highly-skilled in-house osteopath at Ella Di Rocco Wellness MediSpa, is committed to providing effective pre- and post-travel treatments to relieve jet lag and other adverse symptoms of long trips, and can offer advice to help prevent symptoms from occurring. If you would like to see our osteopath why not book an initial consultation here.