As a pilot for Continental Airlines traveling the globe, I thought it would nice to share with you some ideas about coping with a common problem called jet lag. I have found these methods to be quite helpful overall in staying healthy when switching so many times zones. Hopefully you will find them equally as useful for your travels anywhere in the world.
Jet lag is a term used to express our body's biological clock being disrupted when we travel across time zones. Normally our clocks are designed for a regular rhythm of daylight and darkness known as circadian rhythm. Anytime we travel over great distances, symptoms such as fatigue, indigestion, sleeping disorder and aching muscles or joints become noticeable effects of jet lag.
As far as those affected by it, well, pretty much everyone is if you are traveling across any number of time zones. Some studies in the U.S. have shown that up to 94% of long-haul travelers experience it. The only people not really effected seem to be children under the age of three. This appears to be due to their non-regimented daily routine. There also seems to be less jet lag experienced when traveling westbound then eastbound. The belief is that westbound travel incurs more daylight and takes longer to cross to actually pass through the time zones thus allowing the body more time to adjust.
So what contributes to jet lag and how can I adjust/avoid it you ask? First and foremost let us take a look at pre-departure. Aside from the excitement that you are traveling somewhere, you are most likely stressed from deciding things such as packing clothes, airline tickets, passports, and foreign currency. If so I suggest a checklist. Take a piece of paper and write down all those things you need for your trip. Be sure not to wait till the last moment to pack. Also be sure to get plenty of sleep especially the evening prior to your flight. Sometimes I will meditate and/or sleep for no more than one hour before I go to the airport for my trip. It certainly helps rejuvenate my body before my traveling though the night. And while we are on the topic, let us discuss sleeping. After you have eaten your meal on board, it would be a great idea to get a few winks prior to your arrival at your destination. Once I arrive, I tend to head to my hotel, close the shades tightly, and sleep for approximately four hours. From there on in I will work on adjusting my sleep patterns to the new time zone.
Dehydration and Nutrition
Next is the prevention of dehydration. Remember the air on airplanes is mainly recycled and is very dry. Often after I have been flying for three days of more, I have noticed my skin is dry and flaky. Be sure to drink plenty of water. You may even want to bring a bottle of your own as well. If not, you will notice the flight attendants will come around every so often offering water. Take some! Do not be tempted by drinking alcohol, tea, or coffee. All of these are well known for dehydrating the body. Not to mention that the effects of alcohol are two to three times greater on the airplane in flight. Replenishing your fluids will be equally as important at your destination.
Another contributor to jet lag can be the types of food you eat. Try to avoid starchy, salty foods. Most flights to Europe depart fairly late so you don't want to weigh down your digestive system with heavy foods. Sometimes, I will bring some of my own snacks such as non-salted peanuts, pretzels, or sliced raw veggies for my flight. If you have any special diets, such as vegetarian, be sure to call the airline well in advance to see if they can accommodate you. Once at your destination, don't overdue it. Many places have excellent food, and it is wonderful to taste some of the local cuisine. However, as with everything, think moderation. I also suggest taking a multivitamin to help maintain necessary minerals and vitamins you may be missing as well as acidophilus to help with digestion.
One of the best contributors to fighting jet lag I feel is Qigong. When airborne, you tend to sit in your seat for a long period of time. It is highly recommended you get up on occasion and stretch. You may even notice many airlines are beginning to put instructional pamphlets in their seatbacks regarding exercising while sitting. I try to get up at least once an hour to stretch and massage my legs. Just as Master Yang has told us about being stuck in traffic, while sitting there you can still practice techniques such as spine movement, tiger claw, and Dan Tian breathing . After my morning nap in my hotel, I get up, open the shades, and practice an hour of Qigong. I feel it really helps my body adjust and I am ready for the days activities.
Today, there are a number of products for sale such as Melatonin and light therapy that claim to help with jet lag. Of these products, I have only used Melatonin a few times. Melatonin is a hormone which is basically produced in the pineal gland during periods of darkness. It is what makes you feel sleepy at night. Years ago I was based on the island of Guam. While traveling back and forth to the Continental United States I decided to try it to help out in the 14 hour time difference. For the most part it worked no problem. I did notice , however, that if my mind was preoccupied with a lot of thoughts, especially stressful ones, it did not work as well or not at all. In any case, today, most of my assignments overseas last only three days. By the time I arrive at my destination , I have 24 hours and then I am home again. My body never really has time to adjust to the other time zone.
Helping the Body Adjust
When traveling many miles, crossing many time zones, our bodies will feel the effects of jet lag. Using various techniques of sleeping, eating, re-hydration, and Qigong, we can help assist our bodies transition to new time zones. I wish you safe, and healthy traveling in the future. Cheers.
This article was originally published by YMAA in Summer 2004.