By Leslie Woit
Apparently, you know you’re getting old when you consider the quality of your sleep a valid topic of conversation. Thankfully that doesn’t apply to international travellers like us.
Trans-meridian travel is tiring and jet lag can affect anyone. We ask Dr Rozina Ali, microvascular plastic surgeon and presenter of the BBC science program “Horizon, The Truth about Looking Young” for a hard science approach to battling jetlag.
What is jet lag?
It’s a temporary sleep disorder caused when your circadian rhythms — the body’s internal clock – are out of whack. Your eyes may see Zanzibar, but your body says “zzzz”.
What can we do on the journey to encourage sleep?
The first thing to do on a night flight is to put yourself in a place where sleep is a possibility. Wear comfortable clothes, pack your bed socks, try to relax yourself, avoid adrenalines, caffeine and drink plenty of water: Dehydration can make jet lag symptoms worse. Get yourself in dark, quiet conditions by wearing an eye mask and blocking up your ears. We have a hormone in us that responds to darkness: the melatonin in you is saying ‘It’s dark, go to sleep now’. After, in order to wake up and stay awake longer, we can use sunlight as a powerful tool for regulating the sleep-wake cycle.
How does light therapy work?
Your body clock is influenced by exposure to sunlight. When you travel across time zones, your body has to adjust to a new daylight schedule. A good walk in the sunshine can ease that transition.
How about coffee and a cold shower?
We often don’t have the luxury on a holiday of adjusting gradually, an hour per day. So you have to give yourself a new sleep cycle straight away, or risk missing out on precious moments of our hard-earned vacation. That means staying up as long as you can the day of arrival. A little caffeine and some stimulants can keep you awake longer.
Is there a more natural approach than sleeping pills?
Melatonin is a hormone that controls the day-night cycle. As a supplement, it can be a sleep aid taken in the evening together with light therapy in the morning — a standard treatment for sleep disorders. When used several hours before sleep, small amounts of melatonin shift the circadian rhythm, helping you get to sleep quicker. It is a hormone and not available in some countries and there have only been a few long-term clinical trials. Melatonin is used, but it doesn’t mean it works. As a placebo, if you expect it to work, it may work for you.
What if I can’t access melatonin?
You may choose to supplement your body’s melatonin by taking 5HTP, a naturally occurring amino acid. It is required in the biosynthesis of two really important neurotransmitters: serotonin and melatonin. So in fact it’s even better than just taking melatonin because it may make you happy too!
What makes you happy?
The weathered sandstone of Petra, the Sydney Opera House, the boutiques of Paris… sundowners during an African sunset, the low golden light in Zanzibar, the friendly bustling markets of Dar e Salaam, the red sands of Mali and being utterly lost… and found in Timbuktu. These are moments worth staying awake for!
How do you overcome jet lag? Please share your travel tips in the comments space below.