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Women on the Road

Avoiding Jet Lag 
How to prevent jetlag - or at least reduce it significantly

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As a journalist traveling the world, avoiding jet lag was always near the top of my list. I had to hit the ground running, not like a ragged cloth ejected by a washing machine, which is how I often felt. Or like... Stripey here.

It's more a question of trial and error.

So I experimented and finally found what worked for me. It won't work for everyone - we have yet to find a universal jet lag remedy.

As I'm not a doctor, anything I share with you here comes from my own experience or research. This isn't medical advice, but it might help you ask the right questions.

What is jet lag, anyway?

Lets get a few technical things out of the way. Jet lag is a misalignment of circadian rhythms that occurs when you travel quickly across time zones. Simply put, it means that you've traveled so fast that your insides aren't quite aligned to the outside world, resulting in what the medical world calls a secondary circadian dysrhythmia.

There's a popular belief - at least I believe it - that it takes one day per time zone to recover from jet lag. In other words, if you cross eight time zones, your body clock should take eight days to get back to normal. There isn't a scientific basis for this but for me, as a rule of thumb, it works.

Symptoms of jet lag can include sleepiness and a drop in alertness - when I'm jetlagged I'm woozy and all I can think of is getting to bed.

These symptoms can last for several days until you adapt to your new time zone.

Avoiding jetlag: sleep and other helpful things

There are things you can do even before you get on the flight to help minimize jet lag (The Cure for Jet Lag by Lynne Waller Scanlo gets rave reviews on dealing with jet lag).

You can eat well and hydrate yourself, so you're feeling at your best when you board the plane. Flying dehydrates you so anything you can do to counter that is a good idea.

You can try to be as relaxed as possible by making sure you have everything at hand - passport, ticket, money. All that last-minute fumbling causes stress.

You can try to get as much exercise as possible in the few days before your trip. This will expend some of that excess energy and help you relax you on 'the day', although it won't really do much for your jet lag.

And if you have the possibility, you can build in a stopover to your journey. Flying from Europe to Australia? Stop in Bangkok or Tokyo for a couple of days and see the sights. Even a layover of half a day may help between flights.

No matter how much advance work you do avoiding jet lag, at some point you will have to fly...

  • Get on the flight as rested and calm as possible. Meditate, breathe deeply, do whatever you need to feel serene.
  • Note the direction of your flight. Flying East to West will usually be easier on you than the other way around.
  • Wear comfortable clothes. You'd be amazed at what some people think is comfortable, like tight jeans or high heels. I try to wear a cotton or light fleece track suit, which also keeps me warm on the plane. It may not be the most elegant way to travel, but I tend to get to my destination relatively rested.
  • Beware your feet. Bloated feet don't contribute to inflight comfort. Bring some thick socks with you and change into them as soon as you sit down. Make sure you've brought the most comfortable shoes you have because hours in a plane will bloat your feet and getting those shoes back on is murder.
  • Set your watch at your destination's time as soon as you get on the flight. You'll have a head start on adjusting to the new time zone when you land.
Avoiding jet lagWaiting to take off on a night flight
  • Sleep if you're on a night flight - if you can. Carry some earplugs, an eye mask and a soft or inflatable travel pillow to snooze more comfortably. I have a wonderful tempur-like pillow that helps me get to dreamland quickly!
  • Exercise when you're awake. This not only helps reduce the likelihood of blood clots on long flights but it also helps reduce jet lag. I prefer an aisle seat (although the window seat does allow you to lean against the wall...) so I don't have to climb over anyone too often. Just get up once the cart is out of the way, walk down the aisle, and do those little stretching exercises you'll find in the inflight magazine or on your audio channel.
  • Stay away from alcohol, not just during the flight but for 24 hours beforehand. The effect of alcohol is compounded when you fly so even a bit of booze will have more of an impact on you than you might think.
  • Drink bottled water, lots of it (not juice, coffee or alcohol, none of which will help hydrate you). I always buy my own right after security, in case they run out on the plane. Keeping your bottle topped up will force you to get up and walk to the back of the plane every so often - so you get exercise too.
  • Drinking isn't the only way to stay hydrated. Keep your skin clean and breathing by bringing along some moisturizing wipes or your own face cloth - you can always moisten it by using your bottled water.
  • Don't eat the food. Seriously. It's all dried out and you'll do better on an emptier stomach. If you must eat ask for a fruit platter - you can usually get one if you ask 2-3 days ahead of time (check the airline's website). Like water, the fruit will help hydrate you. Not everyone agrees this makes a difference, but it does - for me.

Here's how I deal with jet lag

I use all the above tips in various combinations, depending on my mood.

But there's one absolute rule I follow when I'm flying across time zones: I don't go to sleep until the evening, local time, wherever I am.

Whether I arrive at my destination at 10 in the morning or halfway through the afternoon, I stay up until nighttime. I may be dragging myself around in a wretched sleep daze, but no matter. If I give in and sleep, the jet lag will immediately kick in. If I manage to stay up until my usual bedtime, it'll be much less noticeable, and sometimes I'll avoid jet lag altogether.

If you take a night flight and arrive in the morning:

Try to sleep during the flight. You'll have a few energy reserves when you land, and you'll be respecting your natural cycle - asleep at night, awake during the day. Then stay up all day, go sightseeing as though it were a normal day, and go to bed as usual in the evening. You'll probably have to fight drowsiness during the day but it could be well be worth it if you want to shave days off your jet lag.

If you take a day flight and arrive in the evening:

Do your best not to sleep during the flight or you'll be throwing off that natural cycle and encouraging jet lag. Make sure you've got a few books and games, and catch up on your inflight movies. Once you land, eat something if you're starved and go to bed. You'll again be respecting your natural rhythms by sleeping at night and will avoid those jet lag sleep patterns. 

Preventing jet lag naturally

Homeopathic remedies for jet lag are on the market and some travelers say they work beautifully. Homeopathy, for those unfamiliar with it, is a type of alternative medicine that uses a diluted form of the symptoms it's trying to cure. Diluted is key here because the amount of each substance is minute - larger doses would be toxic.

You'll find homeopathic jet lag remedies, most of them arnica-based, in health food stores and drugstores that deal with homeopathy.

Some travelers say the popular over-the-counter No Jet Lag tablets work better at avoiding jet lag than anything they've ever tried. I can't vouch for them (so far I've managed without the extra help) but if I ever do feel the need I'll definitely give them a try. Just read some of the reviews to see how people swear by them.

Another popular natural jet lag aid is called Flight Spray. Made of turmeric root and spearmint, it moistens nasal passages, according to its manufacturers, which helps prevent colds and congestion in the rarefied inflight air. I haven't tried this either but it also gets good reviews from those who have. No security worries - it comes in bottles small enough to be allowed on board.

And why not valerian root? It is also used by some travelers because it is a natural herb that helps you sleep.

Like I said before: trial and error.

Using melatonin (and other therapies)

Melatonin is an increasingly popular but still controversial jet lag remedy. It has to do with supplementing your hormones to manage your sleep cycles. In other words, a melatonin sleep aid may help you adjust to your new time zone. We naturally manufacture melatonin in our bodies and release it according to the amount of light outside.

Long-term effects of using a melatonin supplement haven't been studied and while some people swear by it, there is at least one study that reports it can actually make jet lag worse if it's not taken when it should be. Melatonin is also credited with possible side effects like insomnia or nightmares if taken in high doses.

In the US it's available over the counter as a natural substance (even though synthetic melatonin is what you usually get) whereas in other countries it is either forbidden or requires a prescription. Make sure you get sound medical advice before trying this!

Another possible way of avoiding jet lag - a few studies exist but this is still a new area - is the use of bright light therapy help reset your body clock.

A number of lights are touted for their anti-jet lag properties but research has yet to prove that bright lights really make a difference. Still, it's not an unpleasant alternative so whether or not it works, there seems to be no harm in it.

Sleeping pills are also used by some people to combat jet lag but there are different opinions about this. While some people swear by pills because they sleep deeply and may arrive rested, there are concerns that immobility caused by deep sleep could provoke blood clots (known as DVT, or deep vein thrombosis). Many pills also contain addictive substances and may not be worth risking simply to avoid jet lag. I wouldn't touch them myself.

Can jet lag really be cured?

About a quarter of people who fly suffer significantly from jet lag - and about a quarter hardly suffer at all. The rest fall somewhere in-between.

Many travelers swear by self-hypnosis, accupressure, jet lag diets or eating at certain times of day only. Some methods are more complex than others, but there still doesn't seem to be a failsafe way to prevent jet lag that works for everyone. Still suffering? You can find more information and resources at Tuck, a website dedicated to sleep.

For me, the easiest is the most natural: let your body talk to you. Stay up during the day, sleep at night.

What about you? Do you have any preferred remedies you've tested?