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What Can I Do About Jet Lag?

After a pleasant vacation in Hawaii, my return to Vancouver began with headaches, insomnia, trouble eating, and general fatigue — classic symptoms of desynchronosis, time zone change syndrome, or jet lag.

Bright Idea
A web site I wish I'd known about before is Jet Lag Rooster, developed by Jay Olson in the Psychology department at Simon Fraser University, which takes your flight information and sleep habits to give you a plan for minimizing jet lag by calculating when to go to sleep and wake up, and when to seek out and avoid bright light. Coincidentally, we stayed in Kauai, which is overrun with free ranging chickens and the roosters that crow all hours of the day.

Days of Our Lives
Strategies for dealing with jet lag generally involve ways to help our bodies shift our circadian rhythms (from the Latin "circa" and "dia" meaning "around a day"), which include when we wake up and get sleepy, and when our core body temperature is warmest and coldest. When we quickly travel to a new time zone, we become out of sync with the environmental cues. The more time zones, the worse the effect. Our biology cannot keep up with our technology.

Go West
As well, when we travel west, the day becomes longer than we expect. Our internal clocks tend to run slightly longer than 24 hours, so adjusting is easier. Traveling east, however, the day becomes shorter, and this can be more difficult to adjust to. This might be part of the reason why coming home to Vancouver from Hawaii felt worse than going. And, as I am realizing, we don't adjust as quickly as we get older.

Seeing the Light
Bright natural light helps synchronize our daily rhythms. The timing of light exposure can be critical to shifting our patterns and gadgety goggles and even showers of light are supposed to help with this. Sensors in our eyes respond to blue light and send signals to the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a bundle of nerves in the hypothalamus at the base of our brains that coordinates our circadian rhythms.

The Dark Side
Conversely, darkness encourages the pineal gland, which is at the more ancient parts of our brain to release melatonin which affects the SCN and makes us feel sleepy. Some advocate taking melatonin, but the effectiveness depends on the timing and is still being reviewed.

Through the Stomach
Our digestive system has a rhythm as well. Experiments in mice suggest that not eating for a day can reset it, so if you stand it, some people suggest this. While you're at it, drink water rather than alcohol or caffeine which can further mess you up. I made the mistake of having a chai at dinner after returning, and then couldn't sleep so I started the research for this post at 4 in the morning.

In addition to missing out on some fun, jet lag can affect brain function. Chronically messing with your body's rhythms, like working shifts, even relying on an alarm clock to wake up (social jet lag), could have long term physical consequences.

If you have tips for dealing with jet lag, please share them in the comments.