DISPATCHES: GOODBYE TO JET LAG
"I reset my internal clock several days before I left," Kulat says, "progressively going to bed earlier and earlier, and waking up earlier and earlier."
That kind of disciplined approach to jet lag works well for Kulat, and it allowed him to hit the ground running when he got to Paris. But when his family joined him several days later, none of them had taken his sage advice about changing their sleeping patterns.
"I had to drag this crabby bunch around Paris for several days," he jokes. "We took the Eurostar to London, and they slept the whole way. When we got into the hotel, they slept even more, losing a day in London."
If you’ve flown to Europe, Asia or coast-to-coast, you’ve probably experienced the traveler’s hangover of digestive ailments, sleep deprivation and moodiness known as jet lag. It includes such physical symptoms as fatigue, insomnia, disorientation and swelling limbs. It can include ear, nose and eye irritations, not to mention headaches, constipation and lightheadedness. And it can last for days.
"We operate on a circadian rhythm," explains Dr. B.T. Westerfield, a sleep specialist in Kentucky. "Our internal biological clock is influenced by light and dark, which gives us our wake and sleep cycle. Jet lag happens when we disrupt that cycle. We go east and west at will, with no regard for how that affects our health."
Traveling eastwards is usually more difficult for most people than traveling in a westward direction. Yet the critical issue is not the length of the flight but how many time zones you cross. Jet lag can result from flying coast-to-coast in the U.S. but it’s often not an issue on a north-south flight of the same duration.
"When we move time zones, we have to reset our clock," Dr. Westerfield explains. "Our bodies can’t adapt. And we think it probably takes one day per time zone traveled to adapt."
So on a trip from New York to London, a five-hour time difference means that it will probably take you five days before you begin to operate at peak performance. While experts may agree on the symptoms, there is no single technique for fighting jet lag that works for everyone.
But you can get a head start by getting a good night’s sleep before you travel. If you’re overtired, stressed out, nervous, or hungover when you fly, you’re primed for a major dose of jet lag. Moving up your sleep time like Kulat does can be beneficial, but it involves a serious reorganization of your schedule. If you’re traveling eastward, say, from Los Angles to Atlanta, you must go to bed at home an hour earlier each night for three successive nights. If you’re traveling westward, try to stay up an hour later for three successive nights in a pre-travel period. Then there’s the travel itself.
"The fatigue and ‘brain fog’ that many people attribute to jet lag actually represent dehydration, poor nutrition during travel, and poor sleep," explains Jacob Teitelbaum MD, medical director of the Annapolis Center for Effective Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Fibromyalgia Therapies. Dr Teitelbaum, who has clocked more than two million miles on American Airlines, recommends that you "drink plenty of water. And check your lips and mouth. If they are dry, drink! And get a good multivitamin high in B complex vitamins and magnesium. These are the keys to energy production."
And avoid caffeine and alcohol, which rapidly dehydrate your system. On an overnight flight to Europe, I eat before I board and drink lots of water. At takeoff, I don an eye mask and ear plugs and try to sleep as much as I can. When I arrive, I take a nap of about three hours, which helps me get on the local time zone.
"On the plane, you may need to take something for sleep, and if possible time your sleep so you wake in the morning where you are arriving," explains Dr. Teitelbaum. "This markedly resets your internal clock. If needed, this is an appropriate time to use a sleep medication like Ambien or herbal remedies such as Suntheanine, Valerian or Jamaican Dogwood."
Once you arrive, natural light is the best cure.
"Get out in sunlight and begin resetting your clock," Dr. Westerfield says. "If you’re flying from west to east, you need light early in the morning. If you’re flying east to west, you want light late in day."
But if you’re taking a very short trip and traveling through just a few time zones, you can stay on the same sleep cycle you have at home, according to Dr. Westerfield.
"Say you live in the East and you normally go to bed at 10PM but you’re in California on business on a short trip," he says. "You’re dealing with a three-hour time difference, so try to go to sleep at 7PM. Just make sure that the room is dark and don’t be socially intimidated about going to bed so early."
Among the more celebrated jet lag "cures" in recent years was the jet lag diet. This pre-flight routine began four days before departure, alternating protein and carbohydrate rich meals. But perhaps given its complexity, or its dubious efficacy, no one talks much about it anymore. Then there’s melatonin, a hormone produced by the body that helps induce sleepiness. The synthetic version is sold in health food stores and touted as a cure for jet lag. But doctors are divided about its safety, since it is not FDA regulated and involves the manipulation of a hormone. Homoeopathic medicines also have their advocates. The Jet Lag CareKit contains cocculus to combat queasiness and for sleep pattern disturbance, nux vomica for drowsiness and arnica for muscle pains. No-Jet-Lag is a homoeopathic mix, whose active ingredients include arnica. Both are about $10.
But if you do nothing more than get adequate sleep and drink plenty of water, you’ve already won half the battle against jet lag.