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Coping with Jet Lag

There are many remedies for jet lag. Unfortunately, some of them are either ineffective, impractical or both. Practical advice from a travel physician.

By Dr. Mark Wise

"Getting there is half the fun", goes a popular cliché. While this may hold true for a lazy driving trip through New England, or a flight to Florida, it generally does not apply to a twenty hour flight to Hong Kong or Bangkok. It can be tough enough to survive the rigors of economy class flight. When we finally arrive, it gets worse. We succumb to jet lag.

Jet lag occurs when our internal body clock, which happens to have twenty five hours, becomes out of sync with that of our new destination. This can occur after crossing as few as three time zones. For example, you may be rushing off to see the Great Wall in China just when your brain was expecting to crawl under the covers for some badly needed sleep. Or, conversely, it may be time for lights out, but your mind is telling you that its only three in the afternoon. Fortunately, travelling north-south is not a problem.

The symptoms of jet lag include loss of appetite, insomnia or fatigue, disorientation and irritability. Hardly a great way to begin taking care of your new baby or child …or to return to work. The severity might depend upon the direction of your travel, the number of time zones crossed, and your personal susceptibility. I myself recall an unquenchable desire to sleep for a week after my return from India a few years ago.

Added to this are all of the other joys of air travel, such the sleep deprivation, dehydration, overabundance of food, alcohol and coffee, and lack of fresh air and exercise.

Melatonin, which had been available as a food supplement in health food stores, has been shown to be of help in reducing jet lag. Its effect is opposite that of exposure to light, so it helps to reset our biological clock by inducing “chemical darkness”. It has also been of benefit to many others with sleep disorders.

The recommended dosage, according to one expert, is as follows:

• For eastward flight, take 3 mg per day in the late afternoon prior to departure, and then for four more days at your destination, at the local bedtime.

• For westward flight, only take at local bedtime for four nights after arrival at your destination.

It seemed to work for me, but that is hardly scientific. Government authorities also seemed a bit skeptical about melatonin, not so much because of its use in sleep disorders, but perhaps because it was being promoted for everything else, from removing cellulite to improving one’s sex life. Correct dosages and potential side effects have not been adequately studied. So until that time, it may be prudent to search for other ways of dealing with this problem. Considering that it is no longer legally available in Canada, I shall not dwell on it.

There are many remedies for jet lag. Unfortunately, some of them are either ineffective, impractical or both. The "jet lag diet", which involves manipulating your food intake, caffeine intake and proportions of protein and carbohydrates, is a bit complicated to say the least. Varying the amount and timing of your exposure to light for a few days before your trip, and after your arrival, is another method. Though it might help, who has got the time. Were all madly rushing around paying our bills and taking the dog off to the kennel before we fly!

So what might help? Well looking after yourself during your flight might be your best bet. Consider the following:

1. Drink lots of fluids while in flight, preferably water. Avoid the coffee and alcohol. They cause dehydration and upset your sleep patterns.

2. Don't eat everything that comes your way. Gases expand in the air up there. Your belt will need an extra notch or two by the time you arrive.

3. Get up and take a walk from time to time.

4. If you fly at night, try to get some sleep on the plane. Use the complimentary earplugs and blindfold. Invest in an inflatable pillow.

5. A short-acting sleeping pill might help with that snooze on the plane, and perhaps at your destination if jet lag is a problem.

6. Switch to the local time schedule upon your arrival. A cold shower or a quick swim should help you wake up at your destination.

7. Consider a stopover along the way, or give yourself a day of rest at your destination.

Jet lag is one of the joys of travel, right up there with motion sickness and lost baggage. Thankfully, many of its unwanted effects can be minimized with some careful planning and sensible behaviour. So don't dread it, but instead, try to beat it!

Dr. Mark Wise is the director of The Travel Clinic (TM)) in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada and the Medical Director of The Travel Wise (TM) Clinic in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. He is a family physician with training from the London School of Tropical Medicine in Tropical Diseases. He is a parent himself and often see potential adoptive parents in his clinic. Dr. Wise gives lectures and writes articles on the subject of travel medicine, for both medical and non-medical groups.
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