Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Another Health Tip: Circadian Clocks

An early morning panorama from my balcony in Bangkok

Last night for the first time since arriving home four nights ago I managed to sleep through the night. Normally I sleep quite soundly, so this was a very welcome accomplishment. The past few mights I've awoken not only wondering where the hell I was, but on Thailand time, to boot.

Those of you who have traveled over multiple time zones have all had to deal with what most folks would call "jet lag"; the body's feeble attempts to slam gears and change its natural circadian rhythm, in an attempt to function on a schedule we'd prefer after arriving at our destination, away from home or back at home.

Sometimes it's a minor adjustment and we merely find ourselves unexpectedly pulled into slumber during an early dinner out with friends or waking up at 04:00, surprisingly wide awake and ready to get on with the day, but neither are often appreciated by those around us. The clinical term for this is circadian rhythm disorder, and it can wreak havoc with the strongest of us and can even prove disastrous for those who insist on renting a car and driving after flying halfway around the world. I don't know why studies show it's more of a problem going West to East, but it seems to be.

I've had the good fortune to travel across the International Date Line from the West coast of the United States to Thailand many, many times. However, as the years go by I've found the 14 hour time difference (currently 15 hours, because of Daylight Savings Time) more and more of a challenge to deal with. I've learned some things through research, from others and by trial-and-error that I can share with you, though. Here are a few:

1) Begin your trip as rested as possible to give yourself a decent start, and on your body's natural schedule, if at all possible. I prefer a night flight, as the final day's preparations are always enough to leave me buckling into my seat exhausted and ready to sleep. If I can fly overseas anywhere close to my usual bed time, I'm a happy boy.

2) Avoid chemical sleep aids, if possible. Most studies agree they can do more harm than good to your natural rhythms, but they can make the flight tolerable if you're anxious or have real problems sleeping on a plane - just be judicious and use as little as possible. I have friends who swear by the over the counter drug Melatonin, and this may well be the least of all the evils. I'd strongly suggest discussing this with your physician as I'm not qualified to make a recommendation here myself. I myself use an extremely low dose of a mild sedative, just to allow me to sleep more soundly without messing up my system any more than necessary.

3) Try to adjust your "internal clock" with light. There's an interesting "Jet Lag Calculator" that Chris Idsikowski developed for the British Airways site that's free to tinker with. By entering some basic criteria you can see how you can help adjust to time shifts while traveling. I've found that getting out into the sunlight as soon as it's practical at my destination helps - maybe it will for you, too.

4) Hydrate yourself. Yes, I've harped on this several times in different posts (like here) but it's one of the more important defenses your body has while sitting in a plane full of dry air. It's well worth buying a decent-sized bottle after clearing security and having it in front of you as opposed to ringing for the attendant. What they bring you isn't enough, anyway.

5) Avoid coffee and alcohol, as both can dehydrate you. Any of you who've had a hangover can attest to this, and you need to keep the water in the system.

Hopefully you've gleaned some helpful nugget(s) here today. I'm heading out for a walk in the sunshine while I still feel like taking one. Then maybe a nap!


George said...

Khun BaoBao, your friends are correct in their recommendation of Melatonin for jet lag or other interruptions in your normal sleep cycle. Melatonin is not a drug, but a hormone produced by the pineal gland inside the brain, and regulates sleep cycles. I use it when I fly back and forth to Thailand and it usually only takes a day to return to normal. Melatonin is sold in most health food stores and pharmacies and usually comes in 1mg or 3mg dosages. 3mg seems to work best for me, and it should be taken an hour before you would normally be sleeping at your destination time. There is a pretty good overview of Melatonin on WebMD if anyone is interested in reading further. Since it is taken to help induce sleep, it's a very bad idea to drive or operate machinery after taking Melatonin. Here's the link


and of course as you pointed out, if you have any questions, please talk to your physician.

khunbaobao said...

Thanks for that, George. I've used Melatonin several times, with varying degrees of success - probably for a variety of reasons: the number of time zones I'm trying to adjust to, etc. It IS a natural aid and probably one of the safest.

My biggest challenge is STAYING asleep through a cycle. For example, after keeping myself awake throughout the normal day hours here at home I went to bed at my normal hour and STILL woke up five hours later - ready for the day.

It's certainly nothing that's going to keep me from travelling, but I both enjoy and appreciate the input from others.

George said...

Yes I know that scenario as well. At least for me it's a either 11 or 12 hour time difference from D.C. to Bangkok. It does seem much harder to adjust when coming back from Thailand although I believe part of the adjustment when going to Thailand is the excitement of getting there and seeing friends. It's just one of those things that we all live with. :-)

khunbaobao said...

I certainly agree how the excitement of GOING carries me a lot farther than than the usual routine does once I'm stateside!