If there's one thing I hate about Thailand, it's jet lag.
Jet lag causes fatigue, insomnia and even symptoms like constipation and nausea.
Seriously, once I'm over it, it's enough to make me not want to step on a plane and go home again.
Flying West to East is notoriously bad, and with 7 hours difference between my home country and Thailand, it can make me feel like a zombie for days.
Eastward travel is associated with a longer duration of jet lag than westward travel. Although frequent desynchrony is a transient disorder, it carries the potential to lead to long-term consequences, as evidenced by epidemiological and animal studies.
Sequelae (consequence) have included cognitive deficits, gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances, and an increased risk of cancer, infertility, and heart disease. As the body’s internal circadian “clock” adapts to the new time zone, jet lag diminishes. (Study reference)
Flying back to the UK isn't as bad: I find I just get really tired in the early evening and then sleep early and wake very early. That said, I still feel spaced out and lethargic for a good few days.
But when I fly to Thailand, I'm looking at a week to fully adjust, which makes sense, because research shows that it takes your body approximately one hour per day to adjust.
Some people aren't affected much, others can sleep anywhere anytime and aren't bothered by the time difference. If that's you, this post won't apply. But if like me you get serious jet lag, then you might find my tips valuable.
Over the years, I've developed a routine for dealing with the torture. It isn't bulletproof, but I guarantee it will make getting over jet lag much easier and less stressful.
10 Proven Steps to Beat Jet Lag & Quickly Adjust to Thai Time
1. Arrange Your Flight to Land Early Morning
Ideally, you want to psychologically adjust to Thai time as quick as possible. So you have two choices, and I prefer the first:
1. Arrange your flight so that you land in Thailand in the morning. Recently I took a Thai Airways flight that lands at around 6am.
This is perfect. The sun is not long up and you are starting the day as you would if you had been to sleep there, well, almost.
By the time I land, get to the apartment, shower, eat, unpack, food shop, etc., it's well into the afternoon and I will stay up until the sun goes down. This way I have immediately experienced a full day on local time and psychologically feel more integrated.
However, some people will disagree and prefer the opposite:
2. Land in the afternoon evening, go to the hotel/apartment and go straight to sleep
This might work for some, particularly if you haven't slept at all on the plane and are dying to go to sleep. You can fall asleep immediately and wake up sometime in the morning on local time.
But it depends how long you can sleep for. I usually only sleep for 6-8 hours, regardless of how tired I am. So in this case I'd have to stay up until say 10pm anyway to get on track.
Either way, try not to land in the middle of the night (1-4am), because you're somewhere in between and and won't reap the benefit of either scenario.
Try your best to step straight into the routine of the locals to mentally adjust to their schedule.
2. Don't Sleep too Long in the Daytime (Set an Alarm)
If you land in the morning like I did, you should try to stay up until the evening before going to sleep. But if you haven't slept on the plane this is going to be hard to do. I'm not getting any younger either, and these all-nighters kill me.
So come the afternoon you will start to fade. You may even fade by the time you reach the hotel room. No worries. Take a nap but set your alarm. Don't sleep for more than 2-3 hours; just enough to recharge your brain.
Whatever you do, don't sleep too long. I've made the mistake of sleeping until 6pm or longer and then being up until 6am the following day. All this does is prolong the adjustment to local time and your jet lag will stick around longer.
Note: If you're only staying in Thailand for 2-3 days and flying home again, then it probably is wise to stick to your home country's sleep schedule, because that way you won't have to readjust much when going back home.
3. Get Outside as Much as Possible
Fresh air (difficult in Bangkok) and exercise are key to staying awake and getting over jet lag.
Consider that you've been sitting on a plane for 12 hours or more in the same position; you need to get your body moving.
You might be mentally tired, but wearing yourself out physically will help you get a better sleep at nighttime and prevent you waking up so much through the night – which happens because you are sleeping at a time your brain isn't used to.
Fresh air and exercise will stimulate wakefulness and help you stay up until it's time to go to sleep (Thai time).
Often I'll arrive, unpack, clean up, then head out and do a food shop, go to a cafe and try to keep active through the day. I might then flake out by 8pm, which is a good thing.
Zeitgebers (time-givers, or synchronizers) are rhythmic cues in the environment that synchronize the internal body clock to the earth’s 24-hour light–dark cycle. Light is the strongest Zeitgeber; other non-photic Zeitgebers include temperature, social interaction, pharmacological manipulation, exercise, and meal timing.
4. Sit Outside as the Sun Goes Down
This is a neat little hack that harps back to the same principle as seeing the sun come up/arriving in the early morning.
Seeing the sun go down will encourage the production of Melatonin, which is a hormone made by the pineal gland in the brain.
Melatonin’s utility in the management of jet lag has been the subject of many studies. When making travel plans, particularly over a distance of five or more time zones, travelers should take melatonin on the day of travel at the projected nighttime hour in the new time zone and on subsequent days in the new time zone.
In the case of flights that cross seven to eight time zones, it may be beneficial to initiate melatonin one to three days before the intended day of travel in order to better acclimate the traveler to the new time zone. (Study reference)
Melatonin helps control your sleep-wake cycle. The sooner you can get your brain to start producing Melatonin on Thai time the sooner you'll sleep better and get over the jet lag.
You can assist this process by taking a Melatonin supplement.
5. Stay Hydrated – Avoid Alcohol – Drink Coffee
After being on the airplane for so long in low air pressure, especially if you've had beer or two, you may be dehydrated.
Dehydration zaps your energy and makes you feel fatigued. Rehydrate by drinking plenty of water. This will keep you awake and alert and help your body function.
To combat dehydration on the flight, make sure you drink water with every alcoholic beverage. Avoid salty foods too, as these dehydrate you and may encourage you to drink more alcohol.
Somewhat surprisingly, medical advice for treating sleepiness induced by jet lag is to drink coffee. Studies show that caffeine improves concept formation, reasoning, memory, orientation, attention and perception.
Results indicate that administration of slow-release caffeine, as well as of melatonin, allows a faster resynchronization of hormone rhythms during the 4 days following an eastbound flight incurring the loss of 7 h. (Study 1)
In conclusion, both drugs have positive effects on some jet lag symptoms after an eastbound flight: Slow release caffeine on daytime sleepiness, and Mlt on sleep. (Study 2).
6. Don't Lie Awake Getting Stressed
The worst thing to do when you can't sleep is to toss and turn and stress about it. This will only make it harder for you to fall asleep. You can't force yourself to sleep.
It's a frustrating feeling and I know it well; I'm usually awake around 3-5am with jet lag when I return to Thailand.
Instead, get up and do something like light reading or tidying up. Maybe put the news on, or go for a walk. In my younger days, I'd even do a workout to totally batter myself into tiredness – careful doing that though!
Return to bed only when you start yawning or generally feel that you could sleep.
7. Get Up at the Same Time, Regardless!
Don't sleep in. Regardless of the time you managed to fall asleep, help reset your sleep-wake cycle quickly by setting an alarm and getting up on Thai time.
Sure, be kind to yourself and get some sleep, but don't lie in until lunchtime or the afternoon. If you do that, you won't be able to fall asleep at a respectable time the following night.
Set an alarm for 9 or 10am and get your routine in sync with local time as quickly as possible. This will help you get over the jet lag quicker.
8. Try Not to Take Sleeping Pills
You don't need me to tell you that sleeping pills can be addictive, and naturally curing a problem is preferable.
There are some pills a doctor may prescribe for jet lag such as Ambien, Rozerem and Tasimelteon, but as with all pills the potential for side effects can make you feel as bad as the jet lag:
Patients are at risk for experiencing common adverse effects that include dizziness, somnolence, loss of memory, headache, and nausea.
Adjusting to a new timezone happens naturally, so try to let your body work it out and use the tips in this post to expedite the process.
I know pills are tempting, but what happens when you get used to sleeping with them for a few days; are you confident you can put the bottle away and sleep without them?
Of course, if jet lag is making you ill and presents a genuine threat to your overall health because of other conditions you have, you should speak with your doctor about medication for travel.
If you want a sleep aid, try Melatonin first.
9. Get a Thai Massage
Jet lag can be stressful and takes its toll on your mood. Seriously, I've felt pretty low and depressed lying there unable to sleep and feeling like a zombie in the day time.
A Thai massage can relieve the stress and anxiety and lift your mood, and help with physical symptoms. Try one a few hours before you plan to sleep and you'll likely sleep a lot better for it.
Factors exacerbating jet lag symptoms include sleep deprivation, prolonged uncomfortable sitting positions, air quality and pressure, stress, and excessive caffeine and alcohol intake. Jet-lagged travelers may experience disturbed sleep, daytime fatigue, poor performance in mental and physical tasks, decreased alertness, and headache.
10. Nourish Your Body
Lack of sleep takes its toll on your immune system, which is why catching a cold can often follow a bout of jet lag. Indeed, jet lag can also bring cold-like symptoms with it. Boost your immune system by eating plenty of fruit and vegetables and other healthy, whole foods. Here's 19 Thai fruits to choose from.
Got a tip for overcoming jet lag? Please share it below.
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