I just finished up my mileage spreadsheet this year and banked about 186,000 miles, visiting 5 continents and (at least) 24 countries. This involved crossing a lot of timezones and a lot of long-haul flights, so after several years of doing this, you start to develop strategies to overcome jet lag and make the most of your time at your destination.
So, I’m going to make a fanciful claim and give some rationale behind it. Food for thought.
Here it is:
“The physiological effects of jet lag are more a result of the environmental factors onboard an aircraft and in airports, and not so much a matter of crossing timezones.”
What! That’s crazy, Eric. Everyone knows jet lag is a thing caused by plotting a line across various boundaries on a map!
Well hang on, sometimes I get jet lag and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes even on the same routes! People often experience sleep issues and insomnia even on long flights that cross few timezones. Or at home.
What’s going on?
Jet lag seems to be less caused by actually traversing timezones and more due to four awful facts of air travel:
- You likely slept in a chair
- You’re likely to be dehydrated
- Excess alcohol can really disrupt sleep patterns
- Travel is stressful
1. You slept in a chair for MAYBE 4-6 hours (on a good flight)
Nobody likes to sleep in a bolt upright chair – try doing it at home and you’ll be cranky too.
Many of the aches, pains and insomnia come from the fact that you didn’t get a typical amount of sleep within a 24 hour period – not to mention the 300 or so other people that could potentially wake you up mid-REM cycle.
Add to that a cramped, steel chair and it’s a pretty obvious recipe for a bad time – no different than an overnight bus or train ride. Oh yeah, and crying babies like this one.
2. Everything on an aircraft is conspiring to make you dehydrated, mess with your stomach and physiologically uncomfortable.
Cabin humidity is a fraction of what it is on the ground.
Recycled air – bleh. You know how you get sleepy in a stuffy room? Ditto here.
Airline food has much more salt that food at home, likely on par with a fast food restaurant. How well do you feel after a double bacon gut bomb?
And most people don’t have unfettered access to water in coach (at least some of the better carriers do hand out bottles of water).
Hitting the coffee to stay up? BAM! Another dehydration whammy.
Plenty of studies have shown that dehydration drastically contributes to physiological imbalances (think about the last time you had too many cups of coffee) and, you guessed it, sleep issues.
This is why it’s doubly, if not triply important to stay hydrated while in the air. Bring a big empty bottle and have the flight attendants fill in in the galley – more than once.
3. Free Booze is Great – Hangovers, Not So Much
Free alcohol sounds like a great perk! How often do you have an open bar on the ground!?
Well, not often. Y’know why? Because open bars make people drunk and hungover.
Alcohol affects you more while in the air, so that drink or two is amplified, so not only do you feel more intoxicated, but the swelling in your brain caused by drinking and (you guessed it) dyhydration
Too much alcohol can dramatically affect a person’s sleep cycle on the ground. Think about the last time you perhaps partook too much, did you end up waking up in the middle of the night? Doesn’t that sound a lot like jet lag?
4. Travel is stressful
“You know what my idea of fun is? Waiting in line under bright lights at two in the morning!” – said no one ever.
Turns out the physiological stress of lugging heavy objects long distances over several hours or days, being corralled and crammed into pens and confining spaces also takes a toll on us.
Really – how often do you drag luggage down the length of your street?
Remember the last time you spent all day at Disneyland or an amusement park? Not exactly a trip to the spa right? The physical stress you endure while traveling also contributes to fatigue, heaping on more reasons why your body hates you after a long journey.
Feel free to assassinate me in the comments, but this article is designed to get you to think about how you can minimize all the stressors on a journey that contribute to jet lag. If you think about your normal sleep patterns at home, we routinely go to bed maybe 5 or 6 hours off from any standard “bedtime” over several days in a week
(Early meeting at Work = In bed at 9pm | Getting back from Best Friend’s Wedding = Tucking in at 3am or later)
It’s less about the physical traversal of arbitrary geographic boundaries and more about treating yourself gently when you pick up and experience a lot of non-typical environmental factors at the same time.
Hope you packed your water bottle 🙂