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Jet lag: What Taylor Swift — and the average traveler — is up against

Let’s say you wanted to fly from Tokyo to Las Vegas to catch a sporting event, and then turn around and fly back across the Pacific to Australia. No one would recommend this punishing schedule from a rest standpoint. But if you’re Taylor Swift and your boyfriend is playing in the Super Bowl, well, maybe you’re willing to wreak a little havoc on your sleep schedule.

Swift’s travel schedule for football’s biggest game has caused quite the stir.

The Embassy of Japan in the United States has issued a playful statement with assurances that Swift can “comfortably arrive” in Vegas in time to see tight end Travis Kelce play on February 11 after performing her February 10 concert in Tokyo, which is 17 hours ahead of Las Vegas. And CBS Sports has pointed out that Swift’s biggest problem — possibly “the biggest first-world problem that has ever existed” — could be finding a parking space for her private plane.

And what about the jet lag? There’s the huge time difference between Tokyo and Vegas, and if Swift needs to be back in Melbourne, Australia, ASAP to prep for the Australian leg of her tour, should she even try to acclimate in Vegas?

Taylor Swift should probably not try to adjust to Vegas time during her anticipated trip to the Super Bowl. - Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Taylor Swift should probably not try to adjust to Vegas time during her anticipated trip to the Super Bowl. - Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

In a word, no.

“There’s no way that anybody can acclimate that quickly,” said Dr. David Schulman, an Emory University School of Medicine professor who treats sleep disorders at the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta

Sleep specialist Dr. Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg agreed, saying “she would probably just be better off trying to stay on a different time zone.”

Melbourne is just two hours ahead of Tokyo, an easier adjustment than throwing Las Vegas time into the mix.

But while there’s not much to be done in terms of body clock alignment on very quick trips across many time zones, there are ways to facilitate the body’s adjustment when the trip is long enough to adapt.

Here’s how jet lag works and what the average traveler can do to lessen its effects.

What is jet lag?

Jet lag is what happens when you travel to a different time zone “at a faster pace than the body is capable to adapting,” said Dr. Richard Dawood, a travel medicine specialist at Fleet Street Clinic in London.

Crossing time zones quickly – usually by plane – causes a “lack of synchronization between your body and the local time – whether it’s night or day, whether you’re hungry or not hungry, whether it’s the wrong time of day for you to go to the bathroom — all of those things follow a daily pattern,” Dawood said.

The more time zones crossed, the more disruptive the symptoms, said Schulman, and jet lag tends to be worse if you’re traveling east.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine puts the threshold for experiencing jet lag at crossing “at least two time zones.”

Schulman said flying three time zones west typically doesn’t result in too much disruption.

“But when you go farther west than three time zones, or farther east than two time zones, you should expect some jet lag,” Schulman said.

He explained that the reason traveling west tends to be easier is because the body’s circadian rhythms actually stretch a bit longer than 24 hours. Going west makes the day longer because it’s earlier at your destination, and “our body clock does better with going a little longer than a little shorter because our body tendency is to go a little longer.”

What are the symptoms?

In a nutshell, you’re likely to have trouble staying awake when you want to be awake on your new schedule, and you may be wide awake when you should be sleeping.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, jet lag can involve:

• Tiredness or disorientation
• Trouble falling asleep
• A decrease in normal levels of daytime function
• Mild sickness
• Stomach problems
• Menstrual symptoms in females

What to do before and during travel to mitigate jet lag?

There are behavioral adjustments and remedies that can help a traveler deal with jet lag.

And there are things you can do before and during the journey to decrease its impact. Those include:

Gradually adjusting your body’s rhythm before your trip

“Totally ideally, what you do is a few days before you’re going, you try to either advance or delay your schedule based on your new schedule where you’re going to be,” said Abbasi-Feinberg, who is part of Millennium Physician Group in Fort Myers, Florida. Moving your bedtime and wake-up time by an hour each day for several days in advance of travel, for example.

It can be helpful “even if you can do it just by an hour or two to try and get yourself in the right direction of your destination’s time,” Dawood said, who added that such a shift is not “hugely practical.”

Schulman points his patients to a tool called Jet Lag Rooster that allows travelers to enter their trip details to get a plan of how to adjust before and during the trip. The plan also includes two remedies that will be addressed below that can help speed the body’s adjustment: melatonin and bright light.

But first, consider these measures:

Starting well-rested and staying hydrated

“Start off well-rested, make sure that you’re very, very hydrated when you’re flying because the flying can be very dehydrating and that can cause irritability and headaches,” Abbasi-Feinberg said.

Skip alcohol and caffeine in flight and eat light, she advised.

“Sort of keeping to a light schedule of eating, keeping to light foods, nothing too heavy, in the 12 to 24 hours before you travel and during your travel can also help you adapt a little bit quicker,” she said.

Choosing flights that are less disruptive to sleep

Dawood points out that the fatigue we feel right after flying on red-eye flights and other sleep-disrupting itineraries isn’t actually jet lag. But choosing flights that are less disruptive to getting a decent amount of sleep helps prevent a sleep deficit that can make jet lag worse.

Two key ways to speed the body’s adjustment to a new time zone

As mentioned, the two key ways to help your body adapt to a new time zone more quickly are melatonin and light exposure.

While Abbasi-Feinberg and Schulman both said that melatonin is not particularly good as a sleep medication, it does work as an “adjuster for your circadian rhythms,” Abbasi-Feinberg said. The supplement can “fool the body into thinking the brain is sending the signal,” said Schulman. Melatonin is a natural hormone that signals the body that it’s time to sleep. So taking a melatonin supplement can help speed the body’s adjustment to a new schedule.

Light is also a cue, so strategically exposing yourself to bright, artificial light or natural sunlight can also help with the adjustment. Sleepopolis’ Jet Lag Rooster site or an app such as Timeshifter can help travelers target the correct times for light as well as times when they might want to wear dark glasses or close curtains to avoid sending the wrong signal.

Other considerations

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine also mentions the use of sleeping pills as a way to induce sleep, noting that “they are not necessary and should only be used for a short time.” Dawood also mentioned medications that could be used in consultation with a physician.

Allowing yourself time to adjust could be the best way to ensure optimal performance if your trip involves something you consider mission critical.

“Normally I’d say to folks, ‘look, for every two to three hours you’re shifting, allow at least a day of recovery,’ so if you’re really shifting 12 hours, you really want to have four days to try to adjust,” said Schulman.

Don’t overdo it on the first day if you can help it.

“Understand that it may take you a little bit longer to adjust than you think,” Abbasi-Feinberg said. “Give yourself time to do that.”

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