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. Your performance can also be at risk. It is known, for example, that professional football teams have a worse record on the road when they cross multiple time zones compared with away games in their same time zone. Travelers often report that they're exhausted but can't sleep, truly one of life's most frustrating experiences. Jet Lag typically arises when you travel through three or more time zones. 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 functions, including 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.

Travelers with critically important meetings or events should arrive several days or more ahead of time to acclimate. Because eastbound flights are more difficult as the day is shortened, eastbound travelers should allow more recovery time. If possible, travelers should avoid "red eye" or night flights. On the night prior to any long haul flight, travelers should try to sleep as much as possible and attempt to arrive close to bedtime in the new destination.

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 (i.e. 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.