Its official name is desynchronosis. According to the Mayo Clinic it can cause muscle pain, insomnia, excessive sleepiness, dehydration, malaise, fatigue, headache, irritability, concentration problems, and indigestion. Some doctors treat it with Provigil, Ambien, or light therapy. It can take days, even a week to get over and yet, every day tens of thousands of us lineup happily for the experience.
And I’m here to tell you: jet leg is no joke.
I hate flying. I hate it for all of the usual reasons: crowds, delays, little dirty airplane seats. I also turn into a giant ball of anxiety – I’d be better off stuffed in an overhead bin than sitting next to some perfectly nice grandfather from Georgia. But I think the worst part of flying is jet lag. It’s not so bad on the way to the beach or a city hotel, but coming home to work and dirty laundry and two a.m. wakeups is torture.
Scientists from NASA have calculated that it takes days to recover from an overseas flight – specifically a day for every time zone the plane crosses. Because they fly around the globe for training with international space programs, astronauts are good test cases for jetlag remedies. NASA astronauts recover from jetlag two to three times faster than us mere mortals. Researchers have learned that our circadian rhythms go haywire when we fly through time zones mostly because of light. And like rock stars, astronauts wear dark glasses on airplanes – to control their exposure to light. Whether it’s natural sunlight or the ubiquitous glow of our smart phones, light at the wrong time can send our body clocks into a death spiral. Cavers, who sometimes spend weeks underground in the dark, report significant jetlag symptoms when they come up for air. They don’t cross over any time zones, but they do go weeks without any source of natural light. According to NASA, if we can control the light around us, we can minimize our jetlag symptoms. There’s no chance we will totally escape the time zone crunch, but we can learn to bounce back more quickly.
I was up at sunrise the day after we returned to Wyoming from Hawaii. Not because I was seeking light therapy – my alarm went off for the third time just as the sun hit the horizon. At my house we’ve largely ignored NASA’s advice but it’s true that the warm sun peeking over the just greening spring grass helped me peel myself out of bed for work. I’ll admit we aren’t readjusting very quickly from our four hour time leap. I’ve had to haul myself out of bed, but all three of my boys have enjoyed a slower, more relaxed reentry. We haven’t readjusted our internal clocks much at all. We’ve all a little woozy. Still, despite experiencing every jet lag symptom, our trip was worth every squeamish side effect.
As for now, I’m more interested in maintaining the illusion that we’re still on vacation. We sleep in and stay up late. We eat special treats. We lay like vegetables. Eventually our home will find its way back to homeostasis. And just as so many of us are willing to swallow the other discomforts of modern air travel for the chance to change perspectives; I’m willing to deal with 2 a.m. wake-ups and grumpy tweens in exchange for a few days of sand and sunshine. Next time maybe I will keep my sunglasses on for the flight home.