Last week I was in Australia which was a breath of fresh air after Hong Kong. The pace slowed, the people slowed but it got colder. An eight hour flight later and you move to the middle of winter for Australians, which for a Brit is still warm. My body clock however is really getting messed up, it’s only an additional two hours’ time difference but it means my day starts as the UK goes to bed and ends as they get up, and its really interrupted my sleep pattern so nights became weird. I have subsequently flown to the USA which really throws your body clock out, because you carry on flying east until you cross the dateline. So I set off from Sydney at 1pm Friday and arrived in Dallas at 1pm Friday after being in the air for fourteen hours.Basically its like being in a really slow time machine.
All of this travel makes me think what is the time zone challenge doing to my performance and how travelling as I do around the world on a regular basis seriously messes with my circadian rhythm. I know for a fact that when I don’t get enough sleep I become grumpy, just ask my family, but I also know that my body reacts in a way that tells me there is more going on than just being tired. When I don’t sleep I tend to be dehydrated, I get mouth ulcers, and I find it difficult to focus. All of these symptoms creep up on me slowly without me really noticing, until I find I am not eating properly and I just feel unwell.
But it’s different if I go west or east. West, or back in time tends to be ok whilst I am in the USA but I suffer when I come home. Whereas east always makes me suffer whilst I am there but I am ok when I go home. Either way causes me problems for longer now I am older so there is something about how we deal with “jetlag” that is linked to age.
Like any traveller, I have developed ways of combating the jet lag, from having a hot bath to walking barefoot on a carpet and grabbing hold of the pile with my toes. None of these are scientifically proven to work but they do seem to make me feel better. However about ten years ago I discovered “mindfulness” and now whilst on the plane I have a routine of taking fifteen to twenty minutes every couple of hours to simply breath and relax. This has really helped me to minimise my jet lag and on this trip it allowed me to arrive, albeit tired, not as tired as I would have expected coming this far east.
So how does sleep interruption/deprivation affect the human body. In a study published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health 2010, they identified that “Moderate fatigue after 20–25 hours of sleeplessness impairs task performance to an extent comparable with that caused by alcohol intoxication at the level of 0.10% blood alcohol concentration.” The impact of this can be seen in a growing body of evidence that points to sleep restriction, inducing physiological effects such as changes in the immune function, increased tendency to gain weight and to develop high blood pressure with all its consequences. Evidence also identifies that it not only leads to weariness but also causes a significant disruption in functioning, such as the deterioration of vision and perception, weakened concentration, impaired memory, longer reaction time, increased number of errors, reduced precision of performance, occurrence of sleep micro episodes during wakefulness, making inaccurate decisions, and emotional disorders. These side effects will be exacerbated by prolonged sleep disruption and recovery will be longer the older you get.
So the interrupted sleep is bad but what about crossing the time-zones? Well apparently that is bad for you also, studies have shown that If you crossed two time zones, it should take you about a day to readjust; if you crossed six, it could be three days or longer before you feel like yourself again. Doing this once in a while, say, a few times a year, shouldn’t cause any serious problems. But more frequent changes can spell trouble; if done chronically, it can lead to a suppressed immune system, chronic fatigue and memory issues,” . In fact, research found that airline cabin crew members (who experience repeated bouts of jet lag) performed worse on memory tasks than those who worked only on the ground (and do not shift time zones). The cabin crew also had elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that, in excess, can lead to high blood pressure and high blood sugar (pre-diabetes or diabetes). It can also cause you to pack on unwanted pounds.
Researching this blog I looked into prevention and repair, but the majority of the advice is don’t do it or do it infrequently. That’s no help. The other alternatives are if you do need to do it then: 1. Stay away from alcohol, 2. Stay away from caffeine, 3. Stay hydrated and 4. Try to adjust your sleep cycle to match the location you are flying too. All of these things I have to admit over the years I have slipped into naturally, but nowhere did I read about using mindfulness to help you. This is strange to me, because the research indicates that our bodies reaction to a miss-alignment between our natural circadian rhythm and the travel induced sleep deprivation is releasing cortisol into our systems which is effectively our bodies generating a threat response to the pressure we are putting our bodies under. I know from practicing mindfulness that it reduces cortisol levels and stress hence allowing your body to adapt better to the world around you. Maybe it’s time airlines addressed this with their in-flight systems, helping frequent flyers adapt to the stress of travel by taking time out to relax, rather than top them up with wine and spirits just so they can sleep.
But then can I really see the tired business people who fill the jets I fly on, forgoing their free booze just so they can function more effectively when they arrive at their destination? Judging by this trip and the booze consumed around me…… not in the near future. Just me then eh!