Let's talk about jet lag, one of the hardest things to tackle when travelling


Overcoming jetlag may take a while for some people. — Pixabay

We recently organised a 22-day North American tour which included Yellowknife in Canada (GMT-7 or 15 hours behind Malaysia) and New York in the United States (GMT-5 or 13 hours behind). On the third day after returning to the Southern Hemisphere, I started to experience jet lag.

I felt dizzy even in broad daylight, and wasn’t quite able to control my body mechanisms. At the same time, I was losing my appetite, too. It took a drastic turn for the worse when night fell. No matter how I mentally and physically prepared myself for sleep, there was just no way for me to drift into slumber.

I tossed and turned and kept changing my sleeping positions throughout the night. I tried to play some calming sleep music to help me relax, and even counted endless sheep, but to no avail. The entire night was spent laying in the bed and getting up to go to the toilet, and even to the kitchen for something to drink.

The only thing I didn’t do was swallow a sleeping pill or supplement like Melatonin.

Worse still, my heartbeat started to pick up pace after having not slept for over 48 hours.

Overwhelmed by extreme fatigue, my body began to present some unusual conditions and my skin started to itch and feel numb. However, having completely consumed my “physiological battery”, my resistance began to give way. That was when I “passed out” from complete exhaustion.

When I woke up the following morning, I was still not in tip-top condition mentally, and I was not over the dreadful jet lag yet. Such physiological signals and sleeplessness could go on for around seven to 10 days for some people. Now that’s what I call a “natural tormenting disaster”!

A friend teased me about my situation. “You have broken the regular rules of the Earth, and this is what you deserve!” he said. I mumbled, “That’s the only planet we have. Why can’t we just simply divide it into two time belts: day and night?”

Today, 193 countries on this planet are divided into 24 different time zones, with the biggest time difference being 22 hours.

Did you know that the Siberian railway in Russia straddles an enormous length of 9,288km in total? If you set off from Vladivostok in the Far East, you will have to cross seven different time zones before arriving in Moscow.

This is enough to make even the Russians insanely confused ... let alone foreign tourists.

Malaysia and Canada are 1,2106km apart and separated by two different continents, with 15 hours of time difference. Sure jet lag lah! — LEESANMalaysia and Canada are 1,2106km apart and separated by two different continents, with 15 hours of time difference. Sure jet lag lah! — LEESAN

Meanwhile, people in countries and continents with vast land masses such as the US, Canada, South America, and Europe will invariably have to lead their daily lives according to the different time zones they are physically in.

China is, no doubt, the best. Despite its massive 5,200km east-west breadth, which should divide the country into five different time zones, there is only one standard time zone and it is based on the time in Beijing (GMT+8), making life easier for every one living in China.

However, when you travel to Xinjiang, you may notice that only government departments, schools, bank, and commerce will adopt the Beijing time zone, while the native Uighurs continue to depend on the local Xinjiang time, which is two hours behind the national time (GMT+6).

As for Malaysia, the peninsular had in 1982 fast-forwarded its clock by 30 minutes to synchronise with Sabah and Sarawak. Back then Singapore also followed the GMT+8 time, and from then on, we have been lying in the same time zone as China.

Under such circumstances, I really wonder how the pilots and flight attendants on long-haul flights overcome jet lag. I asked my friend, Captain Yao, and the “standard” answer I received from him was this: “This is our profession, and during our training we were given some professional guidance on this. After some time, we just got used to it and learned to overcome jet lag.”

He continued, “The aircraft is getting more and more advanced. For example, the Boeing 787 and Airbus 350 have much lower noise level and more comfortable cabin humidity to prevent dehydration. This makes breathing smoother and helps one to sleep in order to minimise the symptoms of jet lag.”

I then turned to ask a flight attendant how she managed to overcome it. She replied, “There are ‘beds’ inside the cabin for flight attendants to take turns to sleep for one to three hours during long-haul flights. The nap helps mitigate the discomfort from jet lag. This is required under civil aviation regulations, and it does help a lot.”

The Greenwich Mean Time or GMT concept was first established in 1884. Following the advancement in science and satellite technologies, the more accurate UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) based on the Earth’s rotation and revolution was introduced in 1967. — HandoutThe Greenwich Mean Time or GMT concept was first established in 1884. Following the advancement in science and satellite technologies, the more accurate UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) based on the Earth’s rotation and revolution was introduced in 1967. — Handout

It sounds “simple”, but in the end, I guess it’s still a person’s strong adaptability that matters. More importantly, you will need to take the torment of jet lag before you get to savour the sweetness of flying across the globe.

William, who always flies long distances, has his own ways of tackling jet lag. He makes it a habit to adequately prepare himself before a long-haul flight and will arrange his daily routines and onboard the aircraft based on the arrival time at his destination. Take for example, if the flight takes off at 10pm local time, and if the time now at his destination in say, Kuala Lumpur, is 10am, then he will try not to let himself fall asleep by watching a movie, eating, drinking apple juice, plain water, or some caffeinated drink (but no alcohol). In short, he must not fall into a deep sleep so that when he arrives at the destination at night, he will get very tired and can sleep well.

On the contrary, if the flight takes off during the day but it’s nighttime now at the destination, then he will go to sleep without any delay. In case you have a hard time falling asleep, he suggests taking a mild sleeping pill to help you sleep.

Jet lag is defined as extreme tiredness and other physical effects felt by a person after a long flight across different time zones. In other words, jet lag disrupts the human biological clock, creating confusion in our sleep, dietary and other physiological activities, and hence physiological changes such as sleeplessness and reduced appetite.

Generally speaking, jet lag happens fairly and equally to most international travellers, although the severity differs from individual to individual.

As we get older, the discomfort from jet lag will also get increasingly intense and the recovery time will be longer.

To mitigate the stress from jet lag, this solution from Karen seems to suit me best. After returning to her home, Karen will first take a short rest and then go straight to the hill behind her house for a 30 to 60-minute hike. After that, she will carry on with her daily routines as usual but will refrain from drinking coffee and alcohol for the time being. In short, just sweat it out in order to promote metabolism.

Meanwhile, PSC says soaking one’s feet in hot water every night is a good remedy too.

But for now, I will just hike at Ketumbar Hill behind my house. Along the way, I might occasionally come across a family of wild boars roaming in the jungle. Isn’t that interesting and invigorating?

We can always take cues from individual experiences and suggestions in overcoming jet lag. That said, in the end what matters is still our own determination and willpower, as well as our ability to slowly make adjustments in accordance with our own body’s adaptability.

Anyway, don’t give up flying just because of a fear of jet lag, as you will lose the fun of seeing the world. Philosopher Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

So, 2023 is now officially behind us. Will you continue to join me to “read” the world in 2024?

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Leesan, the globe-trotting traveller who has visited 137 countries and seven continents, enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

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