Throughout my busy Monday morning schedule, many of my patients wanted to know my secret to looking well rested and energetic after having just arrived back to Boston from overseas the evening before. I can tell you with certainty that it wasn’t getting extra rest on my trip - while visiting family is always wonderful and recharging in certain ways, I definitely always feel more (physically) fatigued. Visiting my extended family in Cyprus typically involves early morning wake ups and staying up late chatting, with little to no time for an afternoon nap (typically one of my favorite vacation pastimes). Instead, my secret relies on what I do the day of my flight, as well as the days immediately following.
Why do we get jet lag after travel, especially air travel? In addition to changing time zones and the hustle and bustle of travel - you are in a small metal tube filled with people breathing the same air, being stationary (often cramped) for long periods of time, and exposed to (low levels) of “cosmic radiation” (CDC, 2015) - something we’re usually protected from by the atmosphere when on the earth’s surface. It’s a lot for the body to process! There’s a lot of extra “stuff” to filter and circulate out as well as resetting the body clock to produce the right hormones at the right time to assist with sleep or wakefulness.
The number one secret to reducing jet lag is to drink lots of fluids. Many people are hesitant to drink a lot on airplanes because of having to disturb others to get up and use the tiny airplane restrooms, but this is a huge must. It helps your body filter and circulate out any extra “gunk” you may have picked up from the circulated air or just produced from stress in your body.
A couple tips:
For those of you hesitant to have to make multiple trips to the airplane restroom, drink a lot of fluids an hour or so before your flight as well as drinking more fluids when the flight is descending to be able to use the airport (rather than airplane) restroom before and after your flight and minimize the number of restroom trips during the flight.
If you are one of those people (like myself) who has trouble drinking lots of fluids, make it a treat! I typically treat myself to a bottle of mineral water or sparkling fruit juice before boarding the plane, and enjoy watered down tea or watered down juice while aboard the flight.
This amazing and easily available vitamin is always my go - to when I’m feeling even a tiny bit under the weather. C helps with a lot of different enzyme reactions in the body, as well as being a wonderful antioxidant. Taking doses of Vitamin C will help the body clean up and process all of the build up of lactic acid from stationary muscles, combat stray viruses or bacteria you many have been exposed to, and bind up free radicals from any radiation or chemical exposure you may have experienced.
Try to take a type of vitamin C that doesn’t contain sugar, artificial sweeteners or coloring - but in a pinch Airborne or Emergen-C are usually readily available at most airport convenience stores.
Walking around or stretching on layovers
Sitting still for hours at a time really gets the body stiff and cramped as all the normal circulation slows down. Move as much as you can on layovers or before or after flights. I often opt for stairs rather than an escalator or skip the motorized walkways.
Keep in mind to be kind to your body - while I sometimes consider carrying a bag through the airport an “extra workout”, sometimes a heavy or unevenly weighted bag may end up bothering your shoulders or your low back.
Melatonin and resetting the body-clock
After a time-zone shift and a day of travel, one would think you would be tired enough to fall and stay asleep, but with our set body clocks it can be hard to get the sleep you need to feel refreshed the next day. In this case, the best sleep aid is to take melatonin, a hormone naturally released in the body to match cycles of day and night. Your body can only naturally adjust it’s clock by 1-2 hours every day, so taking melatonin is a way to get good sleep before the natural adjustment occurs.
Melatonin has been widely studied and confirmed to help jet-lag related sleep challenges when taken before bed, though recommendations on dosages vary quite a bit. It seems dosages as low as .5mg are effective, though slightly higher doses (up to 5mg) help you fall asleep more quickly. Fast release formats have the best effect, so avoid any slow-release varieties. (Herxheimer & Petrie, 2002). I typically take 2mg a night for the first 2-3 nights, then move to the lowest possible dose if more than 2-3 nights are needed.
As the body’s natural rhythms only adjust by 1-2 hours each day, take into consideration how many time zones you have shifted when deciding how long to take melatonin. If you’re shifting 5 time zones, you may want to consider taking melatonin for at least 3 nights, or a maximum of 5. If you continue to have sleep difficulties, it may be time to address some other aspect of your sleep regimen rather than continuing to take melatonin. While some health professionals do recommend taking melatonin as a general sleep aid (unrelated to travel), I do not. I prefer to recommend herbal remedies and practices to aid the body’s natural ability to get a restful night’s sleep. Long term use of melatonin has not been extensively studied, but it has been correlated with side effects such as dizziness, irritability, stomach cramps, or headaches.
Where does Acupuncture fit in?
Do you find yourself always sick after travel, or taking an extremely long time to recover from jet lag? Sounds like your body is asking for a little extra help. Consider booking a short series of acupuncture visits (3-5 weekly visits) to tune up your body so it’s ready to adjust to whatever life throws at you.
Ece Yildirim, LAc