Beating the Body Clock Blues

How to cope with—and perhaps prevent—the problems of jet lag.

By Stephen Hanks

November 2006

Jet lag is a drag. It isn’t enough that air travel is now a more anxiety-provoking adventure than ever, with long lines and security checks added to the old standbys like in-flight ear-clogging and baggage claim delays (not to mention the indignity of paying four bucks a box for high-carb finger foods). On top of all that, cross-continent and -ocean hoppers always have to deal with the biggest bane of flying—the bollixing up of the body clock. About eight million corporate travelers made overseas trips last year and one research study reported that as many as 94% of all long-distance fliers experience some form of jet lag. That’s a lot of people to have walking around looking like extras from Night of the Living Dead.

Crossing multiple time zones (which many of us do during the holiday season) disrupts our “circadian” rhythms, the natural 24-hour body clock that regulates when we should be asleep and when we should be awake. The more time zones that are crossed, the more intense the jet lag (especially when you “lose time” flying west to east). Manifestations of this time travel trauma can include fatigue, headaches, insomnia and digestive problems, symptoms that can hit older travelers like a bag from the overhead bin.

Lessening Lag

Basic tips on minimizing jet lag are fairly well-known, such as drinking water, avoiding alcohol, staying awake on the plane if you’re flying during the day and sleeping on the plane if flying at night. (If you think you’ll have trouble conking out in flight, eat a high-carb meal before takeoff; this helps your brain produce serotonin and might induce sleep.)

If you’re guessing that airline captains suffer the most from jet lag, you’d be right. But you’d be wrong if you think they have any answers based on experience. “Airline captains are the master jet-laggers,” Dr. Mark R. Rosekind, president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions, told the New York Times this summer. “They don’t do the stuff that works. What works is napping and caffeine.”

Huh? “When I was at NASA,” says Rosekind, “we did a study and found that 26-minute naps boosted performance by 34% and alertness by 54%. And using a combination of a nap and caffeine is better. It takes 15 to 30 minutes for caffeine to kick in so you do the two together. By the time the caffeine starts to work, your nap is over.”

People have come up with other creative ways of coping with jet lag. One company called YogaAway provides an in-room video program to 3,000 hotels. The program includes two post-flight exercises that the company says relieves insomnia, regulates energy levels and reduces jet lag.

Some experts now recommend a combination of light box therapy (often used for seasonal affective disorder or the “winter blues”) and the supplement melatonin, commonly used to treat insomnia. The idea is to reset the body clock with small doses of melatonin in the evening for three days before flight time—combined with going to bed an hour earlier each day—and then sitting in front of the light box in the mornings and after arriving at the destination.

We can’t eliminate all the effects of jet lag, so perhaps we just have to put a better face on it. How about: “I’m in an energy holding pattern.”

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