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Sleep And Jet Lag Strategies

by Christopher
(United Kingdom)

What advice would you give to those whose sleep is affected by jet lag? More importantly, how would you define jet lag?

Kevin's Response

Hey Christopher, great questions. I'll start with a definition of jet lag and work from there.

Essentially what jet lag is from a biological point of view is a disagreement between the body's circadian rhythms (which controls the release of the chemicals that govern when we are tired and alert) and the time in the day. However, this definition could also describe what happens in circadian rhythm sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep phase syndrome, so there must be a bit more to our definition of jet lag. And indeed the word "jet" itself implies travel that has induced this circadian rhythm disagreement with a rapid shift in environmental time.

So one can define jet lag as a desynchronization between the body's circadian rhythms and the time of day, brought about by a rapid shift in environmental time during travel to a new time zone.

How's that for a working definition to start with? Feel free, anyone, to add on with any other elements you can think of by using the "Post Comments" link below.

As far as advice goes on adjusting to jet lag, there are a couple key things that from my experience that work the best.

The first is bright light treatment. The basic idea behind this treatment is that strategic exposure to bright light can help shift your biological clock. This bright light can be the sunshine outside your window telling your brain it is morning, orrr it can be a specially made box of fluorescent lights you shine into your periphery at preplanned times to help you to adjust to, say, a future date of travel (learn a bit more about bright light treatment here). Which brings me to my next point...

The second involves preparation. If I know my outside environment is about to shift, say, 8 hours ahead, I don't have to wait until I'm in the foreign country to start shifting my circadian rhythms. I can start at home, either by gradually shifting myself forward over the course of a week or so before the trip, or if there's no time for that by going for the sleep debt technique the night before the flight. I'll illustrate this last part with a recent personal example:

I just returned this past Thursday from a month-and-a-half-long trip to Europe (I'm from the United States). My initial flight was from California to England (with a connection in Dallas, Texas), a difference of 8 hours. Additionally, I was under the quite common travel abroad scenario where I had to be alert and ready to go early the morning after my travels--a 7 AM wake up
call to go dig through trenches for 8 hours (at an archaeological excavation I'd be taking part in for the next month). I needed to shake my jet lag. Fast.

Sleep Debt...For Good, Not Evil?

While the accumulation of sleep debt at night is typically a bad thing, it doesn't always have to be. We can use the power of the debt for good too, such as when we want to shift our biological clock. Oh, just when we thought we had it all figured out...

Knowing this before I left, and not having a ton of time for gradual preparation, I tried to prepare my body the quick way. I stayed up until 4 AM the night before my flight, then proceeded to wake up at 6 AM to get to the airport, thus effectively wracking up some serious sleep debt.

My goal at this point was to make it to my Dallas connection, which left at 1 PM (Pacific Standard Time, to keep the 8 hour time difference) without falling asleep at all. This meant staying awake for the first 3 hour flight...and making sure I got myself through security and to the right gates without the effects of sleep deprivation wreaking havoc.

Once I made it to my Dallas flight, which was the long 10 hour haul over the Atlantic, I took a single sleeping pill and let my sleep debt take over. I got around 6 or 7 hours of sleep on the flight, but the key ingredient was this: all that sleep took place while it was night time in England. The plane left at 1 PM PST, which translates to 9 PM in England. When I awoke and we had landed it was morning in England and I had just finished a decently full night's sleep, pretty well prepared to be up for the rest of that day's daylight in order to fall asleep as soon as nighttime hit so I could wake up that next morning fully rested.

These are just two practical morsels of thought for you. There are plenty of other ideas out there for dealing with jet lag--some of them complete duds. One other thing I want to leave you with though:

Much of what I know about jet lag and other practical alertness-improving techniques comes from the experience and research of a guy named Mark Rosekind, who was recently sworn in as a member of the National Transportation safety board (learn a bit more about Dr. Rosekind here). Among his many projects, he runs a website called and you can find some more good resources about jet lag adjustments on there. In fact, here's a nice little jet lag chart that can help you plan your preparations strategically.

Good luck!

P.S. If anyone else has any jet lag strategies, feel free to use the "Post Comments" link below!

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