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Ester Marsh column: Take care when traveling across time zones

Well, I am back and I am definitely dealing with jet lag.
With the holidays here and Christmas right around the corner, there will be many of you traveling over time zones. Even a one-hour change can make a difference and affect you in all kinds of ways.
First, it is said to be easier for most people to adjust to an added hour or hours than to a “lost” hour. This is even true in the case of daylight savings.
Whenever the time changes, or you cross different time zones, you “mess” with your biological clock — an internal biological clock that regulates the timing for sleep in humans. The activity of this clock makes us sleepy at night and awake during the day. Our clock cycle is an approximately 24-hour period. This biological clock is also involved in controlling reproductive cycles in some animals through its ability to track information about the changing lengths of daylight and darkness during a year. I know my chickens don’t lay eggs well when the days are getting shorter and the nights longer.
Did you know that we spend about one third of our lives asleep? Sleep is a required activity, not an option. Sleep actually appears to be required for survival. Rats deprived of sleep will die within two to three weeks, a time frame similar to death due to starvation. It is no wonder that one hour can affect us.
A misconception about sleep is that the body adjusts quickly to different sleep schedules. The biological clock that times and controls a person’s sleep/wake cycle will attempt to function according to a normal day/night schedule even when that person is trying to change it. The biological clock can be reset, but only by the appropriately timed cues and then by one or two hours per day at best. When I fly to the Netherlands I “lose” six hours. So, when I arrive in the Netherlands at 8 a.m. Dutch time, it is 2 a.m. in North Carolina. And I am normally asleep at 2 a.m. But arriving at 8 a.m. in the Netherlands, it is daylight, which makes it very hard to go to sleep, or even feel sleepy. Later that day, due to sleep deprivation, you will crash. At least, I do. Jet lag can produce a number of unwanted effects, including excessive sleepiness, poor sleep, loss of concentration, poor motor control, slowed reflexes, nausea and irritability. Eastward travel generally causes more severe jetlag than westward travel. (When you travel east you lose time, when you travel west, you gain time.)
For some, a one-hour change does not make a difference, and for some, like me, it makes a huge difference. This is what helps me: Get up at the usual time. If that is 8 a.m., get up at eight. My biological clock says it is 2 a.m. By getting up and starting your day you will get in the swing of things within a couple of days. Of course, it helps when it is light outside to start your day early. Do the same at night. In a couple of days to a week you will be used to the time change. I had such a wonderful, busy trip that I am still spinning. I try to stay up until my usual bedtime but for the last few days I have a hard time doing that. And when I wake up at 3 a.m. ready to go, I just roll over and get some more sleep. Hopefully my sleep pattern will be back to normal soon.
While traveling, especially in a plane, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol. On arrival (and return) make sure you eat a well-balanced diet and hydrate your body appropriately. Limit alcohol consumption as it does not promote good sleep and consuming alcohol in the evening can also make sleep apnea problems worse. And last, but definitely not least, exercise. It is proven that exercise has positive effects on your body and mind. Happy Holidays and safe travel!
Ester H Marsh ACSM Cpt

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