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Business travel fatigue
Question: I travel a lot on business, mostly to the Far East. In the beginning, I have had some symptoms of jet lag, mostly being fatigued for a few days. I was hoping that I would get used to long-distance travel and changing time zones. Over time, however, my symptoms have worsened and I now seem unable to get back into my regular sleep pattern for weeks. What should I do? I have to travel, but I fear that suffering from constant jet lag is going to affect my health.
Answer: Jet lag, also called desynchronosis, affects many air travelers who travel across different time zones. The cause is the inability of the body to adjust fast enough to a new schedule. This can lead to fatigue, insomnia, irritability and digestive discomforts, such as constipation or diarrhea. Most people can adjust their circadian rhythm to a new situation within a few days, depending on the geographical distances that they travel.
Direction also matters. Travelers flying north or south stay close to the same time zone and therefore experience fewer problems. Those going east, on the other hand, “lose time” by flying against the clock, if you will. Respectively, those flying west “gain” time. By traveling to the Far East, depending on the route you’re taking, you may unfortunately experience the severest symptoms of jet lag.
You are right to be apprehensive about your reaction to jet lag. Frequent flyers like you are at risk of developing chronic symptoms of jet lag, which then indeed may become cause for concern. Here is a reason: A small part in our brain, called the hypothalamus, is in charge of activating a number of diverse body functions, such as hunger, thirst and sleep. It also helps to regulate body temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar and certain hormones. If the hypothalamus acts out of sync with the environment, it causes the kind of problems that we experience when we are jet lagged. If this inner “confusion” continues for a long time and without reprieve, it may lead to a series of potential health problems, such as elevation of blood pressure, blood glucose and hormonal imbalances.
Assuming that you cannot simply change your work schedule or find another line of work, I can only advise you to apply any means necessary to minimize the effects of your jet lag before things get worse. I suggest that you start with the most obvious remedies at your disposal. First and foremost, stay in shape. A physically fit body can handle a lot more abuse than a frail one. So, exercise, eat nutritious food and rest as much as you can whenever you find some downtime. Second, don’t add toxins to your system, such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Drink plenty of water instead. Third, spoil yourself as often and as much as possible. If you can afford it, travel first class or business class, where the seats are wider and give you enough leg room to bed down. Be discriminating about your hotel accommodations. Your sleep is interrupted enough without additional disturbances from noisy streets and the likes.
There are also a number of “anti-jet lag diets” that you may want to look into. I personally find most of them rather cumbersome and hard to follow, though.
The effectiveness of hormonal treatments of jet lag, e.g. with Melatonin, is still disputed among the experts. Melatonin is the hormone released by the hypothalamus to promote sleep. You have to start taking it days before your departure, but it may make your symptoms worse if you don’t get the timing right.
I also advise strongly against taking sleeping pills to fight jet lag — especially before or during your flight. Sleeping pills put you in a comatose state, during which you will remain more or less immobilized for long periods of time. Such prolonged immobility in an uncomfortable position may lead to the forming of blood clots with potentially fatal results.
If your jet lag symptoms keep getting worse, you should definitely consult with your physician and see what else can be done in terms of medication.
The worst that you can do is to ignore the messages your body is sending you. Safe travels!
Timi Gustafson is the author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Find more tips for a healthy lifestyle in her book, which is available at local bookstores, www.amazon.com and at her blog. Visit timigustafson.com to read many more Glad You Asked™ Q+A sessions and post your own questions, comments and suggestions.