Overcoming Jet Lag

by Kate Goggin

It’s 2 AM and jet lag has hit me squarely between the eyes. Wide-awake with a raging headache, it suddenly seems the perfect time to write my column. After some cursory research, I learn I am not alone at this hour. Around the world travelers are trying all sorts of measures to overcome jet lag. Homeopathic remedies and exercise are popular options followed closely by sleeping pills and light therapy.

Jet lag is the result of many factors. Crossing time zones and upsetting our natural body clock may be the most obvious ones but changes in the plane’s environment regarding cabin pressure and oxygen supply also play an important role in jet lag severity. Common symptoms of jet lag include: irritability, headache, fatigue, sleep problems, and difficulty concentrating.

According to Andrew Herxheimer and Jim Waterhouse, jet lag is “due to the desynchronisation between various body rhythms and environmental rhythms. The rhythm most noticeably affected is the cycle of sleep and activity, with the associated changes in physical and mental functioning. All the rhythms are regulated by internal and external factors that interact. For example, the body clock controls secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland, an important internal factor, and light turns it off. With a rapid change of time zone, it takes several days for the external factors to shift the phase of the body clock from the time zone just left to the new zone. Speeding up this adaptive shift can alleviate or prevent jet lag.” Herxheimer is an emeritus fellow at the UK Cochrane Centre and Waterhouse is a senior lecturer at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at John Moores University in Liverpool.

“Speeding up the adaptive shift” can be accomplished with a homeopathic cure by taking doses of melatonin available at health food stores. The researchers of the Cochrane review conclude “2-5mg melatonin taken at bedtime after arrival is effective and may be worth repeating for the next two to four days.” But they also caution that “Melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine) is a simple substance, but no official standards of purity exist. In many countries – for example, the United States, Thailand, and Singapore – it is freely sold as a “dietary supplement” in health food stores and pharmacies. Suppliers need present no evidence of the degree of purity of the melatonin. Four of six melatonin products bought in health food shops in the United States were found to contain unidentified impurities. It seems advisable to buy it from a large reputable pharmacy chain and hope for the best. In Europe, Australia, and many other countries melatonin is regulated as a medicine and requires a license, but no licensed preparation is marketed; only the internet offers a grey or black market.”

If you’d rather not risk the unknown, there are convenient preventive measures available. Rick Steves, a popular travel writer and television presenter says, “You can’t avoid jet lag, but with a few tips you can minimise it. Leave home well rested. On the flight, drink plenty of liquids, eat lightly, and rest. The in-flight movie is good for one thing – nap time. With three hours’ sleep during the transatlantic flight, you will be functional the day you land. On arrival, stay awake until an early local bedtime. If you doze off at 4 pm and wake up at midnight, you’ve accomplished nothing.”

Ahem, that would be me at this moment.

I was also encouraged by the advice given at Northwest Airlines. They suggest the following techniques as a “natural way to reset your internal clock:”

- Reset your watch to the destination’s time as soon as you get on the plane. If it’s daytime at your destination, try to stay awake during the flight. Walking around the cabin may help keep you alert. If it’s nighttime, try to sleep. You may find it helpful to use earplugs and a sleeping mask to block out distractions on the plane.

  • Reset your watch to the destination’s time as soon as you get on the plane. If it’s daytime at your destination, try to stay awake during the flight. Walking around the cabin may help keep you alert. If it’s nighttime, try to sleep. You may find it helpful to use earplugs and a sleeping mask to block out distractions on the plane.
  • Eat before you get on the plane so that hunger does not prevent you from sleeping during the flight. Inform the flight attendant that you will not be eating so that you are not awakened for a meal.
  • If you’re using a blanket, buckle your seat belt over the blanket so that you are not awakened by a flight attendant checking seat belts.
  • If it’s daytime when you arrive but nighttime at home, don’t sleep. Instead, try doing some light exercise like walking to help revive your body and stop it from producing sleep-inducing hormones.

I’ll know next time: no naps and a brisk walk so jet lag won’t slow me down or keep me up!

Additional Resources

http://www.bmj.com
The British Medical Journal, Jan 2003 editorial, “The Prevention and Treatment of Jet Lag” by Andrew Herxheimer and Jim Waterhouse.

http://www.nwa.com
Northwest Airlines combating jet lag suggestions.

http://www.flyingwithkids.com
As the name suggests, everything you need to know about air travel with children from what to bring and where to sit to how to overcome kiddie jet lag and prevent ear popping pressure pain.

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