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Ester Marsh column: Jet lag and how to deal with it

Aloha! I am ready to fly to Hawaii with my dear friend Melissa tomorrow morning for my daughter Edie‘s wedding. With summer vacation almost here, many of you will be traveling over time zones. Going to Hawaii will make it six hours earlier for us. However, even a one-hour change will make a difference and affect you in all kinds of ways.

First of all, it is easier, for most people, to adjust to added hours than when you are losing time. This even is the case with daylight savings. So going to Hawaii we will be “adding time,” coming back is when we will be losing six hours.

Whenever the time changes, or you cross different time zones, you mess with your biological clock. It is the 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 cycles an approximately 24-hour period.

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. 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, but, even then, by one or two hours per day at best.

So flying to Hawaii will add six hours to our day. So arriving at 5:30 p.m. their time is really 11:30 p.m. North Carolina time and what do I do at that time? Sleep! Being daylight when we arrive will help us stay awake. Hopefully by staying up we can get into the swing of things pretty quickly to enjoy all the time we have on the island of Oahu and not deal with jet lag too much. 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 jet lag than westward travel. (When you travel east you lose time, when you travel west, you gain time.)

For some people, a one-hour change does not really make a difference, and for some people (like me) it makes a huge difference. This is what helps me: Get up at the usual time. If that is 7 a.m., get up at seven. My biological clock says it is 1 p.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. After 10 days in Hawaii we need to get used to North Carolina time again! 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 last, but definitely not least, exercise! Again it is proven that exercise has all these positive effects on your body and mind. Aloha! And see you in a couple of weeks!

Ester H. Marsh is health & fitness director of JF Hurley YMCA and an excited mother of soon to be bride Edie! 

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