Do you remember how it was when your newborn first arrived? You spent your life daydreaming about sleep. Think about what happened when your two year old missed an afternoon nap. Have you ever tried waking a teen at 5am when their normal wake up time is at two in the afternoon? It's enough to turn your adorable children into fire breathing monsters. Any change in our regular daily patterns of life throws our internal body clocks out of wack. This is similar to what happens when we travel... the dreaded jet lag. Don't worry, their are ways of coping so that jet lag won't ruin your family vacation.
What is Jet lag?
To understand jet lag, we need to understand a little basic biology. The brain conveniently controls a body clock inside each of us. It signals the rest of our body when it is time to eat, sleep or wake up. This is called a circadian rhythm. Although scientists don't yet fully understand the phenomenon of these rhythms, they do know the process is linked to melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced in our pineal glands. During the day, our levels of melatonin are low. At night, the brain calls for more melatonin to be released into our system. As a result, we feel tired and fall asleep. Melatonin levels seems to be influenced by factors such as light, temperature, certain chemicals and exercise.
Jet lag basically means our body clock is out of sync with our destination. Usually traveling north to south does not present too much of a problem. Yet crossing as little as two time zones east to west can cause difficulties. The symptoms usually are loss of appetite, insomnia, fatigue, disorientation and irritability. The degree of severity usually depends on the individual and the number of time zones crossed. After experiencing a 26 hour flight to Bangkok I can personally say jet lag is no laughing matter...neither is watching dubbed versions of &qout;I Love Lucy&qout; at 3am.
Jet lag also gets a bit tricky when dealing with people of different ages. This is because our natural rhythms and body clocks change with age. As I alluded to earlier, an infant might be on a completely different schedule than your toddler or teen. Senior citizens work off of a different clock completely. People who work evening or night shifts tend function on time clocks that have evolved to meet their daily demands. These are all factors that need to be considered and tolerated when you are on the road together.
Suggestions for coping with Jet lag
The first line of defense for dealing with jet lag is common sense. Try your best to arrange flights around your normal sleep patterns. For example evening flights to distant time zones will provide some normal darkness and hopefully promote sleep en route. Even though everyone wants to get the most fun and value for their vacation dollar, don't try to push the limits. An overnight stop in a city along the way is another way to help get adjusted to the time changes. This may add additional expense but save your sanity in the long run and allow for more enjoyable time in your final destination . If you're traveling for a major family event, allow enough time for everyone to unwind before the big moment. It is understandable to want to cram as much site seeing or theme park fun into a few short days but try to keep your schedule light and flexible upon arrival. Trust me...tired, whining and cranky kids are no fun to take anywhere. Above all else, keep a sense of humor. It may come in handy while dealing with the adjustment.
Try setting your watch to trick your brain. Once seated and settled on the plane, set your watch according to the new time zone in the destination where you are headed. This way when you check your watch you'll be more inclined to try to sleep instead of staying awake for the in-flight movie
When you arrive at your destination, if it is still light outside, try to avoid the overwhelming urge to sleep. Sunlight and UV light do have an effect on melatonin. Exposure to sunlight will help your body naturally adjust your body clock. If you are completely exhausted, take a short nap to recharge your batteries but then get out into the light if at all possible. If you happen to be traveling to the land of the midnight sun you can help trick your brain by pulling the hotel room darkening drapes. Better yet, wear an sleepy eye shade mask and ear plugs to bed. I never leave home without them. I live in the country and experience has taught me that the simple exchange of falling asleep to the songs of crickets verses the hum of city traffic can effect your sleep patterns too.
Exercise also helps to stimulate your internal clock. You and the kids might be very sleepy but a short walk or a quick dip in the pool might just be enough to get your second wind. It also help to alleviate the effects of being cramped during the long flight.
The jet lag diet is another way to adjust your body clock. It was developed by Dr. Charles F. Ehret. of the Argonne National Laboratory which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. It is a major center for research in energy and fundamental sciences located in Illinois. Dr. Ehret's study of dietary practices on animal circadian rhythms has been put to the test with fighter pilots who are under extreme demands to stay awake and highly alert on long flights. It is basically a balance of fasting and feasting, protein and carbohydrates while avoiding caffeine and alcohol. The diet starts three before your departure...
- THREE DAYS PRIOR TO DEPARTURE - FEAST - Eat heartily. Breakfast and lunch should be high in protein (eggs, meats, cheeses and protein bars) and dinner high in carbohydrates (pasta, fruits and breads)
- TWO DAYS PRIOR DEPARTURE - FAST - Eat very lightly (700 calories suggested). Choose foods like soups, juices and salads
- ONE DAY PRIOR TO DEPARTURE - FEAST - same as on day three
- DEPARTURE DAY - Try to cue your meal times according to your new time zone using proteins for earlier meals and carbs for dinner. Drink plenty of extra water because dehydration can also enhance jet lag.
When followed exactly, the diet is proven to work. Yet with busy lifestyles this might not be possible. Kids can be picky and not always eat what is best for them. In any case the principles of balancing proteins and carbohydrates is good advice to practice.
Drugs...yes, I said it, drugs. I am the last person to advocate the use of chemicals on children, yet there is a time and place for everything. My advice is to check with your doctor or pediatrician ahead of time and be prepared. You may say that you would never give your child sleep medication but after trying to comfort a screaming child for several hours in a cramped plane seat, you and your fellow travelers may suddenly hold a different opinion. After numerous global treks I have found that using a mild, over the counter sleep aid to force myself to sleep according to my new destination schedule works wonders. I have also administered dramamine or benadryl to my own children and it has worked like a charm. In the past, melatonin could be purchased directly but its safety has been questioned and the rule for sales of this product have changed. Still you may find travel sleep aids advertised online. Be suspicious. By all means, check with your doctor and be prepared with the right medication and the right instructions for use should it become necessary either for yourself or your family members.
If you experience jet lag on the outbound leg of your journey, chances are jet lag may return. If possible, try to schedule a catch-up day before returning to the rigors of school, work and everyday life. It will be easier to adjust being in your own bed and surroundings but these techniques can also help you deal with getting back to reality. Sad but true, we can't stay on vacation forever.