Get ahead of jet lag

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2007
A flight as short as three hours can upset your body's internal clock. The ticks of that timepiece mark the daily routine of your circadian rhythm, the way your internal hormones and body function over a 24-hour period. It's a process normally in synch with your environment's day-and-night cycle.

Admittedly, a three-hour time difference, like from the Big Apple on the East Coast to the Big Orange on to the West Coast, normally will not bring much upset. But go over a longer stretch and strange things happen.

That's because the various bodily functions operate on differing schedules, said Thomas Wehr of the biological rhythms section at the National Institutes of Health.

If you fly from New York City to London, you zip through five time zones in a few hours. When you step off the aircraft in Britain's capital, "your brain is pretty much there, but your liver is still out over Iceland," Wehr said.

Longer flights, across the Pacific for instance, may span eight- to 12-hour time differences.

At that point the "body cycles are almost completely reversed," notes neurologist James Frost.

"You want to sleep while everyone else is starting a new day."

Those who expose their body to frequent shifts in time zones without enough recovery time between trips, such as flight attendants, may experience impairment of visual memory or even some shrinking of a part of the brain, according to recent research.

While most of us, when we travel, may only disturb our internal rhythms by a few hours, we still can experience a range of unpleasantness: disorientation, irritability, headaches, queasy stomach and overall weariness.

Start to walk off the plane, and you find your feet are swollen. Your short-term memory may have shorted out; you can't recall what you had for breakfast.

There are a number of steps you can take to ease, or even eliminate, these problems.

Tactics include using scented oils (aromatherapy) to get your sense of smell smiling and enhance your mood, putting yourself in bright light (preferably sunlight), making choices of what to east and how to exercise.

Traveling east to west, like from Europe to our hemisphere, is less of a factor than going the other way.

Depending on the direction you are going and what time of day it will be when you get there, what you eat can help. Carbohydrate-loaded dishes will help you relax so you can go to sleep, while high-protein foods will stimulate your body's metabolism and help keep you awake.

If you're planning a long trip over a short period, you should begin dietary preparation four days before the trip, said chronobiologist Charlest Ehret, who studies the biological clock.

On the fourth day before departure, try to consume at least 1,000 more calories than usual. Then eat less than 700 calories the next day. Repeat this pattern for the two remaining days.

Eat lightly during the flight and drink a lot of water or fruit juice to combat dehydration from the dry air in the pressurized cabin. Avoid alcohol, which burns your body's oxygen and contributes to dehydration.

Get some exercise on the day before you leave and the day you arrive.

During the flight, get up from your seat at regular intervals, every hour is recommended, do some stretching and walk up and down the cabin a few times. On wide-body aircraft, stroll down one aisle and back up the other. Time your walks to avoid periods when attendants' serving carts block the aisles.

Even if you're stuck in a middle seat, there are stretching moves you can do to keep muscles limber. For example, put your hands behind your neck with your elbows in so you don't poke your neighbor and hold that position for a few seconds. Try twisting your feet and wriggling your toes.

Or reach across your body with one arm at shoulder height and grasp the opposite side of the seat back at head level while moving your knees in the opposite direction. Hold that position for a few seconds. Repeat this with the other arm on the other side of the seat back.

Take naps so you won't feel exhausted when you arrive. Twist sideways and, if possible, get your head down on the arm rest. One of those inflatable pillows is invaluable for this. Drag the bag you stowed under the seat toward you enough so you can rest you feet on it.

Avoid sleeping bolt upright which, when done for extended periods, can cut the circulation in your legs and even bring on a blood clot.

When you land, take a walk. Stroll up and down your hotel corridor or up and down some flights of stairs to limber up those stiff muscles and revitalize your stagnant circulation. If there is a pool handy, a swim is an excellent way to gently work out the kinks.

Get some rays. Spending time in the morning sun helps set your clock ahead. This is valuable if you're traveling eastward, where the time is later. If you're flying west, try to get some sun time later in the day.

Igor Lobanov is a writer for Mature Life Features.

Categories: Travel

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