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Jet lag

People who say ‘I don’t suffer jetlag’ run the risk of self delusion in a manner similar to that of a drunk person or a diver too deep with the wrong air mixture, and may not realize that they are not acting as intelligently as they normally could.

Taking off on a long flight? Then you probably try things to fight jet lag.  Like it or not, jet lag affects us all and detracts from our business efficiency if traveling for business, and our personal pleasure if traveling for fun.  Anything sensibly appropriate to minimize these impacts is therefore a very good thing.

WHAT CAUSES JET LAG? Many factors contribute to jet lag, including lighting, pressure, humidity, and air quality. But the primary cause is rapid traveling across numerous time zones, which results in the body’s internal clock becoming out of sync with the local destination time. It takes about one day for each time zone crossed for the body’s circadian rhythms to adapt to the new time zone. Symptoms of jetlag include dehydration and loss of appetite; headaches; fatigue; nausea or upset stomach; insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns; and disorientation or grogginess.

THE ANTI-JET-LAG DIET: the Anti-Jet Lag Diet, apparently practiced by athletes, among others, to reduce the effects of crossing time zones over and over and over again. The most notable strategy is alternating days of feast and famine from a few days before, to a few days after, your planned trip across time zones. On feast days, eat three full meals, with breakfast and lunch being particularly high in protein. This helps the body produce the chemicals it would normally produce when it’s time to wake up. Feast-day dinners, in contrast, should be rich in carbohydrates to help the body produce those chemicals it would normally produce around bedtime. Fast days should consist of three small meals low in both carbs and calories: salads, soups, half-slices of bread.

For most travelers, the best type of cure is something that is very simple and easy, not something that is complicated and bothersome.

A Scientific Basis for a Jet Lag Cure

With more and more people traveling longer and longer distances, medical science is finally starting to focus on a better understanding of what exactly influences the body’s clock and how to speed its adjustment to a new time zone.

It appears that the body’s clock is influenced by the secretion of an amino-acid derivative hormone, Melatonin. This is made by the pineal gland in response to the lack of light. Stated simply, when it is dark, the pineal gland makes Melatonin, and the rest of the body responds to the Melatonin, saying, ‘ah – Melatonin. That means it must be time to go to sleep.’ (If you’d like a more scientific description, this site is a good one to visit.)

Understanding the interaction of light and melatonin is the key to a really simple two part strategy to speeding up your body’s adjustment to jet lag.

  • During the day, try and expose yourself to as much sun as possible, so as to inhibit Melatonin production that might otherwise occur.
  • In the evening, take a supplementary dose of Melatonin before going to bed.

And so – the Melatonin Cure

Melatonin is freely available in the US without prescription, due to it being a natural substance.

It is recommended for adults to take between 2mg and 5mg in the evening as a jet lag remedy (vary your dosage between these limits depending on your weight – the lighter you are, the less you need, the heavier you are, the more you should take).

Note that Melatonin does not eliminate jet lag, it merely reduces it and speeds up the rate at which your body adjusts to the new time zone. Studies have suggested that Melatonin doubles the speed at which your body adjusts to the new time zone.

For that reason, take Melatonin for half the number of days as time zones you crossed, plus one. For example, if you travel six time zones, take Melatonin for (6/2)+1=4 days, with maybe just a half dose on the last day. Start taking the Melatonin from the day you arrive at your destination.

I can certainly say that, in my own experience, and based on reports from others that also use it, it is close to miraculous and really makes a tremendous difference on the first few days of a journey (and on the first few days after coming home again too). I used to dread the first few days and nights of an international journey, and now it is close to no bother at all.

It makes it easier for me to sleep at night, and I feel more alert during the day.

Melatonin – a Dissenting View

Melatonin is not universally acknowledged as being a guaranteed cure for jet lag, and neither is it universally considered to be harmless and safe. For a while in the mid 1990s there was a large group of ‘experts’ proclaiming Melatonin as a ‘wonder drug’ that would prevent aging, treat cancer, improve one’s sex life, and also cure jet lag, but this enthusiasm seems to have tapered off.

Melatonin may or may not work for you. If you are taking other medicines, it might be prudent to check with your doctor or pharmacist to ensure there are no interactions between Melatonin and the other drugs.

However, all ‘science’ to one side, I can truly report that Melatonin surely does work for me!

A Homeopathic Alternative?

I find I’m becoming increasingly interested in homeopathic cures. This winter I’ve successfully fought of a series of colds, coughs, and other winter ailments by the use of an incredible homeopathic medicine I bought in Russia out of desperation, due to not being able to find any Coldrex or other recognizable cold medicines on sale! To my surprise, this remedy banished every threatened onslaught of winter time ills on an almost miraculous basis, and with no side-effects at all. An amazing, unexpected (!) and very gratifying experience. (The product is called Oscillococcinum and actually comes from a French company with a name something like ‘Buaron Laboratories’ and is reportedly available in the US as well).

Without debating the potential value of homeopathic cures, let me just record the existence of a homeopathic anti-jet lag remedy that was developed in, of all places, my own home country of New Zealand. I’ve never tried this myself (I’m so pleased with Melatonin that I don’t feel the need to try anything else), but some people say that it has worked for them.  Going by the name of  No Jet Lag it can be purchased at Magellan’s for the minimal cost of $9.85 for a pack of 32 tablets, and $9.25 when buying two or more.  Buy two packs – if two of you are traveling, you’ll probably need both packs.

Glowing Glasses

Scientists in Australia have recently (July 02) developed a special device with glowing blue and green lights, mounted on the frame of a pair of eyeglasses. They say that the glasses should be worn for at least three hours a day for two days prior to travel, and another three hours during the long international flight. Little more is known about this, and the device has not been made commercially available to the traveling public – probably just as well!

Provigil?

One reader wrote in to recommend Provigil – she said ‘it is absolutely the best thing’. She did not disclose her own experience or medical qualifications, and did not provide anything further in support of this comment.  Intrigued – and slightly embarrassed at not already knowing about this product, we researched Provigil, with this site providing some authoritative information, and this site providing some less scientific user feedback.

From what we can gather, it seems Provigil attacks the problem of jetlag from the other end – instead of helping you sleep and adjust to the new time zone, it helps you to stay awake and alert when you’d otherwise be drowsy and nodding off.  But this is not helping you to adjust to the new time zone or reset your body clock at all, and it is unclear how much of the chemically induced state of alertness is real and how much is perception.

It seems to be a powerful drug with potentially scary side-effects, including addiction, and so we feel completely unable to recommend it at all, and urge you to get formal medical advice before considering this drug.

Water

Yes, water! Drink lots of water on any flight – a generous cup of water every hour would be ideal. The dry atmosphere on a plane causes accelerated dehydration, and one factor of jet lag is just the body’s stress response to drying out on the plane. Drink as much water as you can.

And, on the rare events that you get a hot moist towel handed to you, do what I do. Immediately start breathing through it – this brings wonderful warm moist air into your lungs and helps rehydrate that part of you as well.

Marilyn from Marilyn Can Travel points out another advantage of drinking lots of water. She points out that it will cause you to go to the bathroom more regularly, and the forced exercise will reduce your risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis at the same time! :)

She is actually doubly correct. Extra water will stop your blood from thickening up, so that gives double protection against DVT as well as reducing one factor of jet lag.

Starving Yourself

Here’s an interesting article about a new theory which suggests if you don’t eat food for 16 hours (and then presumably eat according to your new time zone schedule) that might speed up your adjustment.

But the article doesn’t really say if you should starve yourself and then start with a breakfast or a lunch or a dinner meal, making it of dubious help at present.  Probably it is another idea that is great in theory but useless in practice.

Things that Slow Down your Time Zone Adjustment

Now for the bad news. Three things that don’t help jet lag, and which may actually slow down the body’s adjusting process, are alcohol, caffeine and sleeping pills.

Sleeping pills will put you to sleep, but they don’t help restore the natural cycle of day and night, but rather use a ‘brute force’ approach that often leaves you feeling poorly rested when you wake up.

And both alcohol and caffeine don’t help the body adjust to the new environment, but rather are more likely to slow your adjusting down.

It’s All in the Mind?

Finally, to close on an amusing note about what is a definitely serious subject, here is a very strange device – a ‘Jet Lag watch’ that supposedly helps you to ‘psychologically adjust’ to the new time zone.

Alas, the largest part of jet lag is not psychological but rather physiological; and so the watch is almost certainly close to useless. It might make a great gag gift to give to ‘the person that already has everything’ in your life, but give them a bottle of Melatonin as well!

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