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Jet Lag: New Approaches to an Old Problem

Frank Gillingham, MD

Although the ease of international travel has increased, jet lag remains a common problem. A study by The Upjohn Company reported that 94% of long-haul travelers experience it, while another survey found that 9 out of 10 flight attendants complain of jet lag, despite their familiarity with international travel. The symptoms are well known: fatigue, insomnia and poor concentration. Travelers often report that they're exhausted but can't sleep, truly one of life's most frustrating experiences. The problem arises typically when you travel through three or more time zones and complete recovery can take 3 to 7 days for westward travel, and 5 to 14 days after an eastward flight.

Our bodies have internal clocks (circadian rhythms) which control many functionsincluding the sleep-wake cycle. Ever notice how you wake up a couple of minutes before your alarm clock rings, or you wake up at your usual 6 am even on Saturday when you'd hoped to sleep in? That's your internal clock. The key to dealing with jet lag is to reset your internal clock, the same way you reset your watch when the pilot announces the local time.

While there is genuine progress being made in understanding our biological clocks and in devising methods of resetting them, there is no miracle cure for jet lag. Here's my take on the specific methods you might consider:

My advice here is to use common sense. The evidence supporting the use of these methods and agents is thin to non-existent (ie studies are fairly small and the conclusions subject to additional research). You should be hesitant to actually ingest an unknown compound to treat jet lag which you know will eventually go away. Then again, if the treatment can't hurt (a massage, a spa trip), why not? You are likely to be less affected by jet lag if you do something to combat it regardless of what you do. That's the placebo effect and it's a good thing to put to work for you.