By Dr. Lisa Shives
The summer is nearly upon us, and even with the economy still on shaky ground, millions will take to the sky in June, July and August to fly to destinations far away. Unfortunately one of the side-effects of flying across the country or across the world is dealing with time zones … and jet lag.
Jet leg, which doctors call desynchronosis, is a condition in which your circadian rhythms are upset by high speed travel to the east or west. There is no true “cure” for jet lag (don’t believe the labels on those pill bottles you see at the drug store) but there are ways to alleviate the symptoms. These steps are different, depending upon which direction you’re traveling. Going west makes your day longer, while going east makes it shorter.
If you’re traveling west, try to book your flight for morning or midday and wear comfortable clothing on the plane. No matter how good you look in that little skirt or form-fitting jeans, this is not a time for a fashion statement. While you’re in the air, try to take a nap. This will “shorten” your day slightly and help you stay up later in the day.
Once you’re at your destination, try not to go to sleep before your normal bedtime gets there in your local time zone. If you go to bed too early, your body won’t adjust and you’ll find yourself awake at 4 a.m. on the first morning of your vacation. This probably isn’t desirable.
To help delay your bedtime, avoid dimly lit rooms. Try to get as much bright light as possible. Also, when it’s finally time to go to bed, set an alarm for your normal wakeup time to ensure you don’t sleep too late and further confuse your circadian rhythms.
When traveling east (whether it’s on your way to or on your way home from your destination) you’re essentially going to do the opposite of what you would do when traveling west.
On the morning you leave, try to get up a little earlier than usual. This will help you to be tired earlier than your body is used to. While you’re on the plane, keep yourself awake even if you’re bored. Be sure to bring things to keep your mind active. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you, even if you don’t know him/her!
If you’re traveling east over a number of time zones (from the United States to Europe, for example) try to avoid bright light until late afternoon. Wear dark sunglasses and a hat if you must be outside. This will help your body clock ease into the change.
Try to avoid napping even if you’re tired — try to push through. You can allow yourself to go to bed one to two hours earlier than normal if you’re truly exhausted. Once you do go to bed, set an alarm for your normal wakeup time the next morning, even if you don’t need to be anywhere the next day.
A couple of additional tips: When flying, be sure to drink plenty of water and resist the urge to drink alcohol in excess. Alcohol can reduce the quality of your sleep, which will confuse your circadian rhythms further.
Enjoy your trip!
Dr. Shives works with SleepBetter.org to provide a medical view of sleep issues. She is one of only a few practitioners with a fellowship in Sleep Medicine in addition to board certification by both the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Sleep Medicine.