Coping With Jet Lag
Patricia Zifferblatt | May 1, 2007

The last issue of The Lancet contains an excellent seminar on jet lag, a condition that affects many travelers. Some of the symptoms of jet lag are:

General fatigue and weariness
Poor sleep
Disorientation
Poor action in mental and physical tasks
Headache
Indigestion, constipation, etc.
Overall malaise

Several conditions can make jet lag worse, particularly the older you are and the more time zones you cross; where women are in their menstrual cycle may also have an effect. Traveling east is worse than traveling west, and travelers on long flights north or south usually have no symptoms of jet lag.

According to the authors, jet lag isn’t caused by “the changes of culture, the time of the flight, the associated aggravation, or the length of the flight itself”--it’s your body’s clock acting up. It’s normally adjusted by "time-givers" such as the light/dark cycle, whether food is available, how active you are, and other social influences. Abruptly change all of those, and your body protests! (As the name suggests, you don’t experience jet lag when traveling by car, train, or ship because the changes to your environment are made gradually over several days, giving your body a chance to change time zones more slowly.)

For those of you lucky enough to have an exciting trip planned for this summer, here are a few practical ideas to help you minimize jet lag:
  • Try to plan your travel well in advance to avoid unexpected problems. If you’re traveling westward, plan to arrive in late evening--it makes a long day, but it may be easier to fall asleep and get yourself on the local schedule.

  • Consider scheduling a stop-over, especially on trips across several time zones. Of course, you may decide that dealing with bags, passports, airports, and hotels one additional time is more trouble than it’s worth.

  • Make sure all your papers are in order, especially when traveling to another country. This will help avoid additional stress.

  • While traveling, don’t drink alcoholic or caffeinated beverages--they tend to dehydrate the body. Drink water instead.

  • Eat fruit whenever possible to help your body stay regular.

  • Try to relax, and sleep or nap while traveling.

  • Upon arrival at your destination, take a shower and try to get your body moving on local time. (The authors advise not trying to reset your body clock if you’re staying less than three days.) Take short naps if you feel you need them, but try to adjust to local time as soon as possible. Longer naps over four hours can prevent adjustments to your body clock--fine on short trips, but counterproductive for longer stays.

  • For a little extra help in shifting to a new time zone, melatonin has been used by many travelers and is generally regarded as safe; it’s available in the U.S. in health-food stores and pharmacies. Take it in the early evening on the new local time to help you get a good night’s sleep.
In addition, there are many books and helpful tips for coping with jet lag in bookstores and online. The most important thing you can do is what they taught you in Scouting: Be prepared--and enjoy the ride!
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