Visiting Family: Don’t Let Travel Throw You Off

Whether seeing family at the holidays excites you or freaks you out, the travel required to see loved ones introduces a whole new layer of stress.

Travel introduces all kinds of pressures – navigating airports, booking tickets, remembering to bring what you need. On top of fretting over what gift to bring your ailing aunt, or when to start a long drive. The bustle takes a physical toll, making us stray from our biological clocks. When we cross time zones or pull all-nighters, our bodies don’t get the message – the disconnect wreaks havoc all around our bodies, which also affects mood and how well we handle other stressors.

How Travel Challenges Our Bodies and Brains

Travel makes us operate out-of-sync with our circadian rhythm, the force that drives when we eat and sleep, as well as how our body temperature and hormones fluctuate regularly from day to day. This rhythm even relates to how well we concentrate and remember things!

When we change our own schedules for travel, our internal clock doesn’t automatically shift, and unfortunately, even if it’s only once in a while, our body has to mount a stress response to accommodate the difference. The physical effect of even a small timing change is real; for instance, each year, heart attack incidence in the US spikes about 10% on the 2nd Sunday in March. Why? Due to the physiological strain of the one hour lost to Daylight Savings Time. Indeed, simple time shifts or messed up sleep have significant effects on…

Whether you notice it or not, circadian disruption = bad times for your body.

You can fight back, though!

We can’t just tell our bodies to get with the program — we have to send signals in other ways. Here are some tips:

Get adequate sleep the night before and after arriving.

While it’s hard to truly make up for a sleep debt, making sure you’re well-rested to start will help keep you level-headed and in a good mental state. Sleep research at UC Berkeley has shown “a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived.”

Research also tells us that for each hour of time change we travel through, the body requires a whole day to readjust. So if you’ve flown across two time zones, for example, scheduling extra rest in the two days after arrival will help your body recover more smoothly.

Feel like napping? Catch some sun.

Napping will help in the moment, but can keep your internal clock from readjusting. UV light from the sun helps signal to your body what time of day it is, and should help you perk up enough to make it to bedtime.

Snack first thing in the morning, not at night.

Regulating your metabolic, or digestive, clock will help realign your sleep/wake clock with the beginning of the day. To make sure your body knows it’s morning at your new destination, avoid midnight snacking the night before, and eat a nourishing meal (even if it’s small) soon after waking. Your body will ‘recognize’ this pattern, and start adjusting your sleepiness. Having your mealtimes at regular intervals after breakfast will also help keep your body in the loop.

Most of us have felt the physical impacts associated with time shifts and long flights. Of all stressors, travel is extra taxing, taking a toll on our bodies and minds. Thankfully, research tells us how we can soften the blow, and make it to the family table relatively unscathed. 

Written by: Christina Beck

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