Beating Jet Lag

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Jet lag can be a serious problem for both leisure and business travelers. But there are ways to remedy -- and avoid -- the symptoms when you travel to another time zone.

By the time he was in his early 20s, Chris Jackson, a builder from Orlando, Fla., had done his fair share of traveling -- Costa Rica, the Virgin Islands, Baja California. So when he left on his first trip to Europe several years ago, he saw the jaunt to Holland as another exciting foray someplace new -- and spent the whole of the roughly eight-hour flight watching the movies playing in the seatback in front of him.

He never considered that traveling to another time zone would bring on the symptoms of jet lag. "I didn't sleep for the entire flight and arrived at some ungodly morning hour. Some Dutch friends picked me up at the airport," he remembers, "They were so excited to show me their city, Utrecht, so we hit the ground running.

"At first it was really exciting being somewhere I had never been -- everyone was tall, beautiful and well dressed," he recalls. "But later, as were climbing a clock tower for some city views, it was like I hit a wall. I felt like my eyes were being forced open, people wanted my opinion on what I was seeing -- did I like Europe so far? -- and I couldn't even think straight."
Jackson was jet lagged. And anyone who has traveled between more than a few time zones certainly knows those feelings of disorientation that come when your body's natural rhythm is knocked completely out of whack.

"All organisms have internal rhythms based on day and night activity," explains Dr. Ronald A. Primas, M.D., a travel medicine expert with New York City-based "If your body is used to one time zone, then going through two-plus time zones alters its rhythms." The symptoms of jet lag, says Primas, can range from not feeling alert, having a decreased appetite and difficulty concentrating to headaches and nausea. "It's more of a comfort thing than a true health problem," he says.

Beating Jet Lag

.faramarz, flickr

According to Lynne W. Scanlon, who co-authored the book "The Cure for Jet Lag" along with the late esteemed circadian rhythms scientist Charles F. Ehret, Ph.D., the technical term for jet lag is circadian dischronism. "What that means is that you're in a state of cellular chaos," she says. "Within the first 24 hours, you begin to feel fatigued, you get disoriented, you have changes in your appetite, you begin the onset of memory loss."

And woe to honeymooners when jet lag sets in, warns Scanlon: "That's when the real problem sets in -- lack of sexual interest."

While Primas says that jet lag's effects can already be felt with time changes of two hours, four hours is when it really starts to be a problem. "Especially for business travelers or athletes competing internationally, jet lag can potentially decrease performance," he says. And there is proof that traveling from east to west makes jet lag more pronounced, says Primas: "Because of time differentials, it's a bit easier to resynchronize (your body) going from west to east."

Frequent traveler Tanya G. Burnett, a photographer for Island Exposure Inc. who frequently travels from her home in Florida to destinations like Indonesia for assignments, agrees. "For whatever reason, the flight home to the U.S. East Coast always takes its toll for several days afterward," she says.

Burnett's personal program for staving off the symptoms of jet lag? Staying up for as long as she can before embarking on a flight of 10 hours or more, then trying to catch as much sleep as possible on the plane. And when she gets to her destination, Burnett says she avoids sleeping until it's nighttime, wherever she is.

On the way back east, she takes extra measures to avoid jet lag. "In addition to my usual routine," says Burnett, "I supplement my return flight and recovery with various kinds of herbal relaxing aids such as kava root, valerian root, and a little melatonin and magnesium supplements."

Though Primas sees no reason to discourage the use of natural remedies as a jet lag antidote for people who wish to take them, he says that many of his patients request pharmaceutical drug prescriptions to help with sleeping and staying awake when jet lag is the cause.

"Melatonin is still recommended in literature as treatment for jet lag," he says, "But my patients usually tell me melatonin doesn't work. "

Beating Jet Lag

Staying hydrated is the number one rule for fighting jet lag; Nexeus Fatale, flickr

Staying hydrated, he says, is the number one rule for diminishing the effects of jet lag, as dehydration can lead to myriad problems. Avoiding alcohol also helps prevent dehydration, he adds.

"As a general rule, your body needs about one day per time zone that you travel through to reclaim its natural rhythm," says Primas. With that in mind, after traveling by plane from New York to Paris, your body would need about six days to feel like it's operating on the correct time zone.

But there are some things travelers can do before traveling to start adjusting to a new time zone. "The way I deal with jet lag is to try to go to bed early a night or two before I leave, so I can get a head start," says John DiScala of, "I set my watch to local time as soon as we take off and try to sleep during normal rest hours."

Experts agree that trying to get on the time zone of your destination when you get there is important. "If it's nighttime where you've come from, but you're landing in the daytime at your destination, stay up, even if you have to make an effort. It will help you get adjusted more quickly," says Primas. While DiScala says that's always his goal, sometimes he can't avoid some quick shuteye. "If you can't cope, just take a short 10- to 20-minute nap," he says. "I do it outdoors if it's warm -- or set my alarm if I'm inside, and I don't get under the covers."

Scanlon's "The Cure For Jet Lag," which she updated in 2009, takes things even further by outlining a three-step program that promises to eliminate jet lag in one to four time zone changes, and vastly reduce its effects for greater time zone differences.

The program varies depending on where you are traveling and the duration of your stay, says Scanlon. It includes preparing for your trip four days before traveling, if possible, with a diet that alternates between "feasting like it's Thanksgiving" (on the even days) and eating only about 500 to 600 calories (on the odd days, including the day of your flight). "It confuses your body, disrupting your system slightly but not enough to make you feel ill," says Scanlon.

Beating Jet Lag

Plan coffee breaks; phillyreconstructed, flickr

The program in her book outlines steps to take during the flight that include drinking coffee at specific times. "It's very important because it has naturally occurring chemicals," she says. She advises passing on that Danish in your breakfast meal and opting to eat only the protein-rich foods like eggs instead. Sugary foods like pastries cause you to crash.

The book's program continues after you reach your destination. "One of the smartest things you can do is get into the action going on. Do not nap. That's the worse thing you can do," says Scanlon. "Don't wear sunglasses. You want daylight to hit your pineal glands to let you know it's daytime, and time to get going." (DiScala agrees on the need for sunlight, calling it "jet lag's kryptonite.")

Once you've landed, Scanlon says it's important to make your meals follow a "protein, protein, carbohydrates" schedule. Eating protein-heavy foods for breakfast and lunch gives you sustained energy to be productive (and stay awake) during the day, while carbo-loading at dinnertime (think pasta with no meat) can help you sleep and get on the time zone of your destination country. "Why would you want to finish the day with steak?" she says. "That means four or five hours of sustained energy when you want to go to sleep."

So does Scanlon follow her own advice against jet lag when she travels? Yes, she says -- after learning the hard way what happens when she veers off course.

"A few years ago I was with a friend flying business class to the UK for some castle hopping, and I threw caution to the wind," she says. "I had the champagne they were serving during the flight, I didn't follow the program." "We arrived and rented a car. And 24 hours later, I was doing my share of the driving. Suddenly I said: 'I can't drive.' I was so ill with jet lag, I didn't want to see a castle. I wanted to crawl into the backseat and fall asleep."

Since then, Scanlon takes all the necessary steps to beat jet lag.

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