I just came back from a trip across the Atlantic. Traveling and experiencing other cultures is in my top five favorite things to do. It’s exciting and, at times, challenging. Challenges that often arise when traveling usually involve language, transportation and figuring out which tourist attractions are worth skipping. One additional challenge that I face that most others do not is that my bipolar disorder can actually be affected by travel. Jet lag is something that most people face when traveling across multiple time zones, but usually you’re just disoriented or tired for a couple of days. For me, there is also a chance that travel and jet lag could trigger a depressive or manic episode.
Jet lag occurs when the body crosses time zones too rapidly for the circadian system to keep pace. Circadian rhythm is, generally speaking, our sleep/wake cycle. The circadian system cues our body when it’s time to fall asleep and when it’s time to start waking up. It controls metabolism in a way that enables the body to produce more energy during waking hours. Circadian rhythm also affects many hormone levels including stress hormones. When jet lag occurs, this system can be thrown off.
Jet lag isn’t just a groggy, sleepy brain fog. There are several symptoms including:
- Poor sleep in the new nighttime
- Reduced mental and physical function
- Decreased concentration
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
It takes the body a full day to adjust to each time zone crossed. My recent travels took me across several time zones. That means that I had maybe half the time I was there my circadian rhythm was adjusted as well as could be before I hopped on a plane and came back. Now my body seems to be having an even harder time adjusting.
People with bipolar disorder already have problems with circadian rhythm without the added trouble of jet lag. Sleep problems are on the list of required symptoms for both mania and depression. In mania, people may go days without sleep and not feel tired. With depression, some may sleep 10-12 hours a day and still feel exhausted.
Now that I’m home, I’m feeling a little bit of the latter, which according to one study is typical. In this study the authors found that those who were traveling east to west tended to suffer more depression and those traveling west to east experienced more manic symptoms and episodes. The first two days after my travels I slept an average of 11 hours a night in addition to experiencing all of the other symptoms of jet lag.
There are ways to treat jet lag that hopefully will also help minimize the potential for mood relapse. These include:
- Exposure to natural light
- Avoiding caffeine
- Staying on your new schedule
- Staying hydrated
- Taking sleep aids approved by your psychiatrist
- Making sure you take your medications
I have a few more days before I can expect to reach stasis again. In the meantime, I’m trying to take my own advice and not to push myself too hard. After all, stress can also trigger episodes.
Image credit: Bernal Saborio