Jet Lag: Simple treatments for a complex (if common) disorder

After a transcontinental or transatlantic flight it’s not unusual to spend the first three days of a trip trying to recover from jet lag. But with air travel as common as catching a bus, it’s easy to forget how inconvenient crossing several time zones can be to ones sense of well-being. While there’s no getting around the fact that a long flight will disrupt ones sleep and waking pattern, a bit of prevention can go a long way toward easing ones travel fatigue.


Symptoms of jet lag are consistent with chronic lack of sleep: foggy thinking, fatigue, disrupted bodily functions, and general irritability—all of which run completely at odds with the ability to enjoy a vacation or fully function on a business trip.  Nonetheless, if you factor in preventative measures amid all of your pre-trip preparation, you may be able to avoid jet lag altogether.


Jet lag isn’t as simple as missing sleep; it’s actually a circadian rhythm disorder: a function of the complex internal clock found at the cellular level within the brain. So while yes, there are pills you can take to put you to sleep or keep you awake on cue, such treatments don’t cure the problem and instead force your body to work not only to adjust to the time change but to process the drug. Plus the body often builds up resistance after prolonged use of sleeping pills and artificial stimulants, rendering them  ineffective.


Instead frequent travelers and health practitioners smile more kindly on remedies that involve making low-impact  diet and lifestyle adjustments to prepare your body for time changes. Lynne Waller Scanlon and the late Charles F.Ehret, Ph.D. co-authored “The Cure for Jet Lag” after developing a simple three-step cure at Argonne National Laboratory. Scanlon and Ehret’s cure relies on making adjustments to your diet three days before you’re scheduled to fly, abstaining from alcohol while flying and using coffee and tea to trick your body into thinking it’s daytime. Set your watch to the time zone of your destination and sleep (or try to sleep) and wake up according to that time, rather than the time zone at home.

The number of times zones crossed and even whether you travel east or west all correlate to more intense symptoms (it’s slightly easier to adjust to a westward flight than an eastward flight).  NASA researchers have found that you can adjust someone to a new time zone in two or three days. Once at your destination, follow its clock, no matter what you feel like. Get out in the sun and enjoy that cup of coffee. If you must sleep, take a short catnap rather than an extensive mid-day rest. Some doctors also recommend taking melatonin, a hormone that cues the body for night and which can be bought over the counter, at a specific time to aid in getting to sleep.

Perhaps the simplest way to avoid jet lag is to pad your travel itinerary with an extra day for the sole purpose of adjusting to your new location. That way, you’ll be refreshed and alert enough to enjoy the main purpose of your trip.

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