The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Jet Lag
With a variety of symptoms that have the potential to disrupt both study and social life, jetlag can be one of the most excruciating obstacles for a traveller to overcome. For the international student or returning nomad, overcoming the horror that is jetlag is an art that can be mastered – hopefully without the need for copious amounts of caffeine or sleeping pills.
It is generally acknowledged that travelling east through time zones increases the severity of jetlag because it runs in direct opposition to one’s body clock (or circadian rhythm, if you prefer medical jargon). Unfortunately, given Australia’s position on the world map, it’s fairly likely that the majority of travellers will be approaching in an easterly direction. However, travelling west poses its own challenges; on a return trip from South America, I felt like I needed a maths degree to work out what day and time I would actually be making it back to Melbourne after crossing the International Date Line. Generally speaking, Australia is really not the easiest country to travel to.
As an international student, struggles with jetlag have become an all too familiar experience. In one particularly memorable return trip, I ended up arriving in Melbourne early on Monday morning – with class that very afternoon. Determined as I was to stay awake and soldier on, I attended not only my Monday’s afternoon lectures, but every class that I had that first week. In hindsight, I really shouldn’t have bothered. When it came to revising for my exams, attempting to comprehend what on earth I had been attempting to say in my first week was like attempting to garner some sense from a transcript of a George W. Bush speech. I ended up having to listen to all of my first week’s lectures again; I genuinely may as well have not been there the first time round.
While the point of this article is not to advocate skipping class, it is important to emphasise how debilitating jetlag can really be. And it’s not just a case of potential embarrassment at falling asleep in one of your first lectures; it can affect an individual’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Symptoms range from simple fatigue (which can be bad enough in itself) to memory lapses, impaired judgement, digestive upsets and periods of irritability or apathy. Taking some steps to help prevent and overcome jetlag could prove invaluable to aiding your sleep patterns and your subsequent ability to study, make decisions and not be a jerk to your mates.
Before travelling, get plenty of sleep. Sleep deficit before you travel will only make your jetlag worse – particularly important if you struggle to sleep on planes. If you’re one of those lucky sods who can either sleep anywhere or have managed to bag a seat in First or Business Class with the advantage of a flat-folding bed, try to adapt your sleep pattern to the time zone of the country that you will be arriving in. The best way to do that is generally to set your watch before your flight takes off.
While on the plane, stay hydrated. Drink lots of water (don’t be afraid to ask for more) and limit your alcohol and caffeine intake. As hard as it might be, resist the student inclination to seize the opportunity to knock back glass after glass of free booze! The hangover is not worth it and it can seriously screw up your body clock. Also, don’t stuff yourself with free food. Plane food is generally pretty poor quality and smaller, lighter meals are recommended for allowing the body to deal with travelling between time zones.
If you arrive at your destination in the morning, expose yourself to as much daylight as possible. Studies have shown that sunlight enables the traveller to reset their body clock since our circadian rhythm is determined by chemicals in the brain – particularly melatonin – that are activated by sunlight. Apparently, the stimulus to reset our body clock is through light entering the eyes. So, if you arrive feeling tired, fight the temptation to hole up inside with a DVD box set of Scrubs – your body will thank you for it.
If sunlight just isn’t cutting the mustard and you need to rely on caffeine to get you through your first day, avoid drinking it past the late afternoon. It can seriously inhibit your ability to sleep and there is nothing more miserable than lying wide awake in the early hours of the night counting down the hours before you have to get up for lectures or work the next day. If you’re self-medicating through caffeine, exercise some common sense!
If you struggle during your first few days of arriving, don’t panic. It’s perfectly normal to take anything from several days to several weeks to get your body clock fully back on track. A rough estimate is that it takes one day for every hour of a new time zone. Don’t push your body if you don’t have to and it will allow you to recover far more quickly. With a little bit of luck, you’ll end up not trawling through incomprehensible lecture notes, ostracising your friends, falling asleep at 3pm, forgetting your timetable or ending up dependent on caffeine for the rest of the semester. Did I mention jetlag can really suck?