We like to think we have control over our bodies, but the opposite is often true.
Such is the case with circadian desynchrony, commonly known as jet lag. Exhaustion. Gastrointestinal discomfort. Headaches. Difficulty concentrating. Trouble falling asleep or trouble staying asleep.
These common jet lag symptoms have the power to put a damper on a dream vacation or ambitious business trip. Unless you figure out how to game your own system.
Senior experimental psychologist John Caldwell has spent the bulk of his career researching the effects of sleep deprivation and sleep restriction, while also studying countermeasures that sleep-deprived people can use to function better. Much of his research was conducted within the military aviation community, and it helped fuel insights for the book Fatigue in Aviation: A Guide to Staying Awake at the Stick, which he co-wrote with J. Lynn Caldwell.
Caldwell explains that our bodies are able to adjust to about one time zone change per day but that jet lag sets in when we cross three or more of them, because it wreaks havoc on our circadian rhythms. That's a fairly new phenomenon, historically speaking.
"People now can fly from New York to Paris in [eight] hours, whereas in 1923 you did it on a ship, and it took you six days to get over to Europe," Caldwell says. "We just haven't evolved to the point where we can rapidly change those rhythms, because it's a relatively recent thing."
While you can't banish the effects of jet lag completely, scientists and physicians agree that there are things you can do to help adjust to a new time zone more quickly.
Caldwell creates a timetable so that, at a glance, he can see what time it is at home and at his destination and plan accordingly. "A lot of times, when you look at that table, right away you're going to see where you're going to have your biggest problems," he says.
If he's traveling for a quick work trip and will be gone for only a couple of days, he avoids gradual adjustment. Instead, he tries to plan any meetings at a time when he would be awake and alert back home.
When traveling east, your biological clock will be behind. "Melatonin and avoiding bright light in the evening can help with advancing our biological clock," he says. "Similarly, bright light exposure after waking up also will help advance our biological clock to suit the new time zone."
When traveling westward, the biological clock is ahead of the latest time zone. He suggests gravitating toward bright light in the evening and exercising to stay awake later and sleep longer.
An online calculator, such as Jetlagrooster.com, can also be helpful. It provides a brief plan to avoid jet lag, sharing the ideal time to get to sleep and the ideal time for light exposure.
"It definitely has a sedating effect as far as getting someone to sleep, but it destroys their [REM] sleep so their actual mental recovery is reduced," he says. Instead, drink plenty of water so that you stay hydrated while traveling.
Bruce Stephen Rashbaum, owner and medical director of Capital Center for Travel and Tropical Medicine in Washington, regularly counsels patients on jet lag. He considers prednisone, which is a prescription corticosteroid, to be the most effective tool for jet-lag recovery. He instructs patients to take the medication when they land, which is typically early in the morning, and again in the late afternoon and the next day.
The adrenal gland "releases a prednisone equivalent around 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.," he says, adding that the addition of a little extra prednisone, by prescription, mimics what the adrenal gland would normally do on its own and can help reset the body's clock.