Around the world, scores of college students are settling back into university life. Some would have traveled thousands of kilometers across several time zones, heading back to their host country to begin a new school year or semester. A common side effect of all the travelling is jet lag.
Jet lag used to be considered a mere ‘state of mind’, but researchers have found that it’s a condition that affects people physically and mentally.
We suffer from jet lag when our body is thrown out of whack because of our natural biological clock. Our bodies work on a 24-hour-cycle called circadian rhythms, which are influenced by exposure to sunlight and determine when we sleep and when we wake up.
How long does jet lag last? While it depends on the individual, studies have found that it generally takes a full day to recover for each time zone you’ve traveled through.
One of my students was probably just freaked out that I graded her assignment three minutes after she turned it in at 2 a.m. #jetlag
— Carlos Mariscal (@proflos) January 25, 2017
When we travel to a new time zone, our bodies may be physically there but our inner clock is slow to adjust. That’s why people who are jet lagged feel sleepy when it’s the middle of the afternoon, or wide awake when it’s time to go to bed.
When a person is jet lagged, they can suffer from symptoms such as insomnia, disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating, daytime fatigue, feeling unwell, gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea or constipation, and mood changes.
Suffering from these unpleasant symptoms can make it a pretty miserable time to be launching into a busy semester. Here’s some tips on how to beat jet lag and reduce its nasty effects, so you can kick off the new school year with a fresh and well-rested state of mind.
Use a jet lag sleep calculator
One of the most effective ways to combat jet lag is to get more exposure to natural light, according to experts.
“But the rules for when you should seek out or avoid light are complicated and depend on whether you travel east or west and how many time zones you are crossing,” said Russell Foster, Head of Oxford University’s Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology and one of the world’s leading experts on jet lag.
Sunlight activates the pineal gland, triggering a physical process that winds up and sets your body’s internal clock, while darkness encourages your body to sleep by reducing your temperature and sending melatonin, a natural sleep-inducing hormone, into the bloodstream.
But when you’re flying halfway across the world, you can’t exactly be following signals from sunlight and darkness as you’re either in a plane or at an airport.
Therefore, you can use websites that offer sleep schedules based on how many time zones you’ll cross and which direction you’ll be travelling so you know when you should be sleeping. You can also prepare for a new time zone days ahead by adjusting your sleep schedule.
With Jet Lag Rooster, you input your flight itinerary details and the site gives you an hour-by-hour breakdown of when to sleep and when to go outside and seek sunlight.
Another popular option is Timeshifter, an app for jet lag that creates a personalised jet lag plan for you, under the premise that everyone responds to jet lag and new time zones differently.
Stay awake until the local bedtime
You’ve probably heard this before, and it’s still good advice! The sooner you adapt to the local sleep and wake-up times the better. Although it may be really difficult, strive to stay up until you can go to bed at the local bedtime once you arrive at your host country.
If you find yourself dozing off at home, force yourself to go out for a walk in the fresh air, or distract yourself with chores. You might feel really tired, but it will help you get a good night’s sleep later so you can recover from jet lag faster.
If you really need to take a nap, set an alarm so you’re not going over 30 minutes, as this will put you in deep sleep which really won’t help you feel better.
When it’s time to sleep but you find yourself wide awake despite staying up all day, you can try taking melatonin – a natural sleep aid commonly recommended for jet lag. It’s illegal in certain countries, however, so make sure you check before you bring it in to the country or try to buy it at a pharmacy in your host country.
Avoid other sleeping pills unless prescribed by a doctor as they can be habit-forming and make you feel groggy in the morning. Try natural sleeping methods such as warm milk or herbal teas instead.
Rest as much as possible
Staying healthy, relaxed, and well-rested is important before you leave so you can better cope with jet lag and fatigue.
Although it can be hard to sleep the night before your flight as excitement and nerves set in, not to mention wanting to say goodbye to all your friends and family members, try to get a good rest before your trip.
If possible, try to arrive at least a week before your classes or orientation begin, so you can get some rest after your flight and acclimatize yourself to the new time zone before jumping into homework and assignments.
Stay hydrated and healthy
Being dehydrated only makes jet lag worse, so make sure you hydrate well before your trip and on the plane, too. Drinking more fluids and water also helps with constipation, another unpleasant symptom of jet lag.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol on the plane and during the first week of your arrival, as they mess up your natural sleep cycle, cause more dehydration, and may lead to a crash during the day.
While feeling sleepy and dozing off in the middle of the day are stereotypical jet lag problems, stomach issues are also common and can interfere with everyday life.
Our body clock also affects our appetite, meaning we feel hungry at certain times of the day and lack appetite at others.
You might wake up starving for a full dinner at 6am when you’re jet lagged, or simply find yourself not wanting to eat anything at all during the day.
All this can upset your tummy, so try not to binge when you’re hungry. Eat healthy, well-balanced small meals frequently during the day so you don’t overwhelm your digestive system.