The Timezone Traveler’s Guide to Beating Jet Lag

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Frequent fliers, especially international travelers, know the agony of jet lag. Bone tired, but unable to sleep, jet lag sufferers can experience a slew of symptoms, including insomnia, anxiety, headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion, memory loss, dehydration and constipation. Luckily, there are a number of steps you can take to eliminate jet lag or at least lessen jet lag induced sickness.

Jet Lag Basics

Doctors define jet lag as a disorder that occurs when a traveler crosses at least three time zones. It happens because the body’s clock is regulated by sunlight, or rather, darkness. The sleep hormone, melatonin, is produced in the body when the day gets dark, not based on how long a person is awake. This is why, if it is not dark on arrival after a long trip, the body will not produce melatonin, and it may be difficult for the traveler to sleep.

Before Travelling

Particularly if planning a trip longer than three days, or across many time zones, the traveler will want to plan their sleep ahead. If travelling east, they should make bedtime an hour or two earlier each night for a few evenings before leaving. If travelling west, they should go to bed an hour or two later for several nights. In any event, the traveler should be sure to get the normal amount of sleep – making yourself tired will not help you sleep when the destination is reached.

In Flight

Travelers should try not to sleep unless the flight is so long that it spans the time they would go to bed at the destination; this should help the body’s clock adjust more quickly.

Rather than cursing the nuisance, travelers should use layovers to their advantage. They should eat, but not too much, and find a comfortable place to stretch out and rest. Relaxation is known to help with mitigating anxiety, headaches and nausea.

To avoid constipation and dehydration, travelers should drink plenty of water and other non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages.

At the Destination

If the trip is under three days or the destination is not that far from home, travelers should try to stick to their usual schedules as much as possible. They’ll want to eat and sleep at their regular times, so when they return home, they can resume the schedule more quickly. Travelers should also keep to any exercise regimen they practice at home, as this will help reduce stress-related symptoms like headache and anxiety.

Getting sufficient regular, restful sleep is the best medicine for reducing the confusion, memory loss and dizziness associated with jet lag. For longer trips, travelers should try to stay up during sunlight hours, so the body will naturally adjust and produce melatonin at the right time. Many travelers take a melatonin supplement a few hours before they want to fall asleep for each of the first few nights while at their destination. Prescription sleep medications, such as temazepam, may also be helpful.

Travelers are strongly cautioned to avoid making important decisions for the first day or two at the destination.

Return Home

Again, travelers should avoid sleeping on the plane during the return trip unless it would be their normal sleep time. When back home, they continue with any melatonin regimen for a few days to help their body resume its normal schedule.

It Could be Worse

Travelers suffering from jet lag may be comforted knowing that just about everyone experiences it at some point. One disoriented traveler in Tokyo thought she was going to be “the new face of Japanese homelessness,” until she realized she was miscalculating the exchange rate while trying to withdraw yen from an ATM. Another took prescription sleep medicine before she realized she needed to use the computers in the lobby of her Taipei hotel to send an email back home. And in 2007, actor John Stamos made an awkward appearance on an Australian morning show that he blamed on a sleeping pill and jet lag.

Like death and taxes, jet lag is inevitable for the multiple time zone traveler. Most of its difficult symptoms, however, can be avoided or lessened by employing a little discipline. With some advanced planning and a few simple rules during and after the trip, the timezone traveler will stave off the worst effects of air travel.

Further Reading

CDC’s Pre-Travel Consultation
Guide to Healthy Sleep
Jet Lag Prevention

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