04 October 2018
By Nick Littlehales
Light can be used before, during and after a long haul flight to reset your body clock and help offset the effects of jet lag.
When we travel a long distance rapidly east or west across time zones, our circadian rhythms struggle with being out of sync with the light-dark cycle of the new environment, and we experience jet lag. Evolution has yet to catch up with the invention of the jet engine.
Disrupted sleep patterns – trouble falling asleep and staying asleep – and enhanced daytime levels of fatigue are the usual signs of jet lag. We’re alert and then tired at all the wrong times while our body clock adapts.
The further you travel and the greater the time difference, the more acute the impact is likely to be. As a very rough rule of thumb, it is estimated that it takes a day for every hour’s difference to adjust, but it affects different people to different degrees. The truth is we can put steps in place to attempt to prepare us better for it, but it’s no guarantee we’ll be spared it.
The most effective treatment for jet lag is, of course, time. If you are travelling for business, fly out in advance if possible, this allows time for your circadian rhythms to adjust to the local light-dark schedule and recover before any important events or meetings. The same applies for travelling home, try to have a couple of days resting before you go back to work, however, this isn’t always an option.
Our most potent weapon against jet lag is light. We can use light before, during and after our flight to reset our body clocks and help offset the effects of jet lag. Adopting a very simple pre-adaptation routine before you fly allows you to get a head start. If you are flying from New York to London, which means five time zones east (five hours ahead), you would need to move your body clock earlier to start matching the time zone at your destination. You could start to move your wake time and sleep time earlier each day for a couple of days before, using light – either natural or from a daylight lamp – earlier in the morning and avoiding light and targeting an earlier sleep time that night.
The same logic would follow the journey in reverse (London to New York), with the journey west meaning you would use light for an hour in the evening to keep you awake longer, so you could target a later sleep time and a later wake time the following morning before your flight, to move towards the time of your destination.
On the plane, use light if the daylight hours of your destination require it. Whilst packing a daylight lamp in your carry-on isn’t an option, you could use a product such as Human Charger, a jet lag aid which will give you light through your ear canals and won’t look any more suspicious than it would if you were just listening to some music.
Adapting to the new destination is as much about avoiding light as it is about exposing yourself to it. Avoid light on the plane in accordance with the daylight hours of your destination – keep your window blind shut when it’s daylight outside, if you’re able to, and use eye masks or even sunglasses.
Once you’re at your destination, you can continue to phase in your adjustments by moving your clock earlier or later gradually each day, using sunglasses, blackout and staying indoors to avoid light, and getting daylight on you at the right times, though by this time you might just find it practical to adopt the daylight hours of your destination. If you have trouble sleeping at your destination and you get up during the night, avoid any activities that involve bright light, and similarly during the day make sure you get plenty of daylight on you and avoid sleeping the whole day in blackout. Having done some preparation work, the effects of jet lag shouldn’t be as severe or last as long.
Light is of particular benefit if we’re flying straight in for a meeting or event and we’re not able to phase in the changes to our body clocks. Its ability to boost mood and alertness means we can use daylight devices to give us a fix to get us through the main event, as well as controlled doses of caffeine, and if we crash after it’s all over, it isn’t so important. Light is a far more effective natural weapon against jet lag than overstimulating on caffeine and using sleeping tablets. Looking after yourself by staying hydrating and avoiding alcohol, which won’t really help you sleep, on the plane are important too.
If you’re a regular flyer, taking some steps to find what works for you means that jet lag doesn’t have to inhibit your performance, and even if you’re an infrequent flyer, being sharp back at work the day after you land is only going to be possible if you look after yourself when you travel.
It’s important to remember that light is the tool we can best use every day in our lives to regulate our sleep-wake cycles, whether or not we ever fly long haul.
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