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Sleep deprivation

2003 Max Lent

Jet lag is talked about as the only source of sleep deprivation for travels.  Unfortunately,  there numerous other sources of sleep deprivation for travelers. 

Jet lag is caused by traveling to a different time zone quickly and attempting to adjust to the day/night rhythms of the new time zone.  If you haven't noticed you are an animal, a mammal to be more specific.  Your mammalian body has found a kind of new age harmony with what times the sun rises and sets where you live.  When you disrupt that harmony by telling your mammalian body that you have changed the times for sunset and sunrise and that you are going to go about your business using the new times, your internal animal clock goes screwy.  Eventually your mammalian body will adjust, but it will take time and there will be consequences.

Eric Anderson M.D. of the NASA-Kennedy Space Center in his scholarly Microsoft PowerPoint presentation entitled "Managing Circadian Rhythms" states the following:

"Deprivation causes fatigue and irritability

Symptoms include:

  • Loss of concentration

  • Visual and tactile hallucinations/illusions

  • Decreased motivation, attention lapse

Signs include: nystagmus, hand tremor, ptosis, thick speech, incorrect choice of words, and mispronunciation." (The links are mine)

Knowing that the pilot of your aircraft might be experiencing these symptoms creates another set of symptoms for you.  It's called paranoia.  Try not to contemplate this concept on your transoceanic or transcontinental flight.  If you think I'm trying to exaggerate and frighten read what else NASA's Dr. Anderson has to say:

"Airline studies reveal out of phase crew [experienced]

  • Decreased sensorimotor task performance

  • Decreased physical strength/mental ability

  • Irregular menstrual cycles

  • GI disturbances, etc."

"Sensorimotor task performance" refers to coordinating what you see and feel to doing something with your limbs or fingers.  An example could be landing an aircraft where you have to read instruments, look out the window, and manipulate lots of buttons, levers, and the yoke (steering wheel).  A flight attendant handing a hot cup of coffee to the second passenger next to you may also be experiencing jet lag, so be helpful.

Enough about your flight crew.  What you will most likely feel when you fly from NYC to Paris, France is all of the symptoms mixed and combined to create a state of mind you won't forget anytime soon.  Yucky is word I've used to describe what I feel like when I arrive in Paris in the morning after an all night flight.

There is still even worse news from Dr. Anderson when he describes how long jet lag lasts.  "Typically, 1 day to adjust for 1 time-zone change.   Less for westward, more for eastward travel."  These estimates suggest that on a trip from NYC to Paris, France, having changed 5 time zones, you will need at least five days to overcome jet lag.  This not good news if you stay in Paris is only a week.  Just about the time you are overcoming jet lag it will be time to return home through six more time zones in the opposite direction and start your adjustment all over again, to slightly lesser degree.  Dr. Anderson uses a term that I love the sound of when spoken: Zeitgeber.  Zeitgeber is an environmental cue, as the length of daylight or the degree of temperature, that helps to regulate the cycles of an organism's biological clock.  There is no reason that you should know this word, I just mentioned it for enjoyment.

Extrapolate Dr. Anderson's estimates for flights from NYC to New Delhi, India which is eleven  time zones away and requires eleven days to overcome jet lag.  At the end of the second week in New Delhi a business traveler might be able to make an uncompromised business decision. 

Could it be that places described as exotic are really normal places seen through the eyes of someone with severe jet lag?  Perhaps that is why the Caribbean seems so normal and India or Japan seems so exotic.

From a vacationers perspective jet lag is an annoyance.  For business travelers who must make important decisions after a multi-time zone flight the effects of jet lag could be disastrous.  Corporate travel agencies should recommend that their international business travelers who cross multiple time zones take extra days at each end of their trips to adjust for the jet lag factor.  Business appointments should never be scheduled within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of the arrival of an overnight east/west flight.

I've tried a variety of methods to counteract jet lag including diet manipulation, masks, sleeping pills, vitamins, and behavior modification.  I have, at last, found a solution that works for me.  This solution may not work for you and should not be considered medical advice.  Ask your whether you should accept the recommendation of anyone regarding pills you might take.  Chances are that your doctor has never heard of the solution I use and you will have to make up your own mind anyhow, but now I have satisfied my legal responsibility. 

On a transatlantic flight I set my watch to the destination time.  I then modify my behavior so that I am sleeping at the destination night time and awake during the destination day time.  It's hard to do this because of when the airline meals are served and when seatmates need to get passed you, but I do as best as I can. 

When I want to sleep on the airplane I cover my eyes with a sleep mask.  These are often made available to passengers for free on better airlines.  They can also be purchased from online sources like Walmart.

Arriving at my destination I stay awake until it is time to go to sleep in the context of the destination time, not my home time.  I eat meals that match the destination daily cycle, not my home cycle.  When I arrive in Paris in the morning, I eat breakfast, such as is available. I stay awake until bedtime Paris time. 

When it is time to sleep I take a time-release Melatonin called Melatonex and an over the counter sleeping pill, Unisom, and put on my sleep mask.  On a trip to India I find that this combination of pills and behavior results in my adapting to the new day/night cycle fairly quickly.  Within a few days I am able to act normal enough so that people on subways and busses will sit next to me.  Even Gypsies are less afraid of harassing me within two to three days.  Within five days I'm normal enough to be dismissed as a crazy tourist.

Having your Zeitgebers messed up is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to possible sleep inhibitors.  Other factors that can keep you from sleeping are:

  • Reorienting your body on a different magnetic axis

  • Eating strange foods and different times

  • Drinking alcohol excessively

  • Over stimulation

  • Exhaustion

  • Hotel beds

  • Different nighttime noises

  • Sunburn

  • Fear

  • Illness



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