Body Clock Disruption
Time Zone Change Syndrome
Oh, yes. This is a topic of which I’m intimately familiar. I just got back from my 6th trip to China and 5th trip to Europe this year. When you have an office in Dallas, Texas and another in Shenzhen, China with clients in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Japan, you tend to do a bit of travel. The more time zones you cross, the more out of whack your body can become. Your phone says it’s 2pm in London on a rainy Thursday afternoon, but the rest of you believes it’s time for a cup of java since you technically should be just waking up – your mind and your body are having a giant tug of war and you’re caught in the middle. Jet Lag. It can take control, so give it some serious respect.
Jet Lag Defined
I’m no biologist, so let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about Jet Lag.
Jet lag is a physiological condition that results from alterations to the body's circadian rhythms caused by rapid long-distance trans-meridian (east–west or west–east) travel.
And of course, that begs the question – what the heck are circadian rhythms (I asked, but no, they’re not the latest dance move).
A circadian rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours.
Although internal, interestingly these bodily rhythms adjust to the local environment via external, stimuli such as light and temperature. To take this a step further (if you want to really go down the evolutionary rabbit hole), circadian rhythms allow beings to anticipate and prepare for specific, regular environmental changes, thus enabling them to take greater advantage of available resources (e.g. light and food) vs. creatures that can’t.
Ok, enough of all this fancy explanation. The net-net is that if you move your body into a dramatically new time zone fairly quickly (less than 24 hours), then your internal clock gets out of sync with its external cues – and could wreak havoc on your physical and emotional state. Yes, this kind of disruption can cause a real metabolic earthquake within your body. Let’s pull out the checklist of symptoms, shall we? I’m sure you’ll recognize at least a few:
• Difficulty concentrating
• Memory loss
• Daytime sleepiness
• General malaise
• Coordination problems
• Sweating (my favorite – I sweat enough as it is)
• Increased susceptibility to illness – (yuppie flu, you are just run down)
Too bad we can’t bypass these symptoms with our premium frequent flyer status. Alas.
So, with my vast experience in this area, I thought it would be helpful to share some “professional” advice on how to mitigate or avoid the symptoms of Jet Lag as much as possible. I did a little research (Google is a wonderful thing) and confirmed what I’ve felt firsthand:
West is Best
The world is divided into 24 different time zones, each representing an hour of the day. When you fly eastward, you lose time because it gets an hour later with every time zone you cross. Conversely, when you fly westward, you gain time, because it’s an hour earlier per time zone.
Typically, it’s more difficult for your body to adjust to losing time (fast forwarding your body clock) because all your meals, sleep, constitutionals and other daily routines are pushed ahead by several hours or more. You’ll likely still experience Jet Lag going east, but often it’s more manageable.
Sleep experts say that it takes roughly a day to re-adjust to the new local time for each time zone you skip over. For instance, if you jump 13 hours forward, it may take your body 13 days to fully recover from jet lag. Um, no thanks. That won’t work for me – I’ve got client presentations, factories to visit, and product quality checks, so I’ve got to be on my game right away. Land at 6am in Hong Kong; in my office in China by 10.
So, friends, here’s what I do – might be worth a try if you’re struggling with Desynchronosis (I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on TV), so be sure to consult a real MD before trying any of this on your own).
Numero Uno – Start Early
A few days before you depart on your trip, start adjusting your schedule at home to the time zone of your destination. If it will be six hours later, then try moving your meals 2-3 hours later than normal. Same with bedtime, etc. Your body will be much happier upon arrival if you start tricking your circadian rhythm to march to a new beat well in advance. Think of this as dipping your toe in an ice-cold, time warp pool before diving in.
As soon as you board your plane, change your watch so you get fully immersed in the mindset of the actual time at your destination. If you can, sleep on the plane! It always helps to get some sleep on the long-haul flights (much easier in premium economy and business class). And drink plenty of water (a couple of bottles is a good bet).
When you land, jump right in, and go along with the local schedule. If it’s lunch time, but your body thinks it should be sleeping, eat lunch. Then, get outside for a little sunshine, go for a walk, drink some coffee. Daylight is a powerful tool to reset your internal clock. Just do what you can to stay awake and keep moving until you collapse for a slightly earlier than normal bed (yawn) time – zzzzzzzzz. In China, for instance, I try to keep going until 11pm (yes, I normally stay up much later!).
Sometimes you have the opposite problem, however. It’s the middle of the night, and you find yourself counting the ceiling tiles in your hotel room instead of sheep. It can make you stir-crazy. In those instances, I admit I sometimes take a low-dose, prescribed sleeping aid to ensure some solid REM. Then I wake up more refreshed and feeling less like a zombie. I also have friends who swear that adding 0.5mg of melatonin supplements to their evening routine helps them drift into slumber land more naturally.
Melatonin, as you likely know, is a hormone that plays a key role in body rhythms and jet lag. Basically, as the sun sets, your eyes sense the darkness and instruct the hypothalamus to release melatonin, which promotes sleep. At dawn, when the eyes perceive sunlight, they tell the hypothalamus to hold back on melatonin production. Pretty cool, huh? The problem is your hypothalamus cannot readjust its schedule instantly – it takes several days. So, supplements in the evening can help the hypothalamus catch up. Basically, everyone has a different metabolic system, so you need to find what works for your own rhythm.
I’m certainly a fan of an adult beverage or two, but I’ve come to realize that I re-regulate much better when I abstain for a couple days before and during long flights. Alcohol can interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep. No bueno. Same is true with coffee and other highly caffeinated drinks. Best to wait until you really need a boost during the day and have to power through, dragging your body clock, kicking and screaming. But then, of course, politely decline at dinner so you can actually sleep come bedtime. The body is a fickle creature.
On the flip side, drink water. Lots of it. Dehydration is not your friend and will only exacerbate your Jet Lag troubles.
I must say, for me, adrenaline is my greatest friend when arriving to another country and jumping into the work mode. I seem to hit the ground running. Jet Lag tackles me pretty hard, however, on Day Two when I’ve settled into my schedule.
I’ll admit that heading back home after a really busy trip tends to take its toll on me. Mission accomplished, but my body sends clear signals to relax, hang out, and chill. I find that if I try to get right back to my fast-paced home life, without practicing a day of rest, I am more susceptible to getting sick. And that’s obviously no fun. So, listen to your body. Embrace a zen day when you’re back.
Travel, and being fortunate to have the opportunity to work around the world is incredible. Just take it easy and go with the flow!