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How to Avoid Jet Lag? Go West (and Other Tips)

Having just returned from a two-week vacation to France, I wish I could tell you that I found a great solution to the problem of jet lag, especially because scientists say that older people fare worse with a big change in time zones.

Unfortunately, I have no magic answers (other than lots of coffee), although researchers are studying ways to help vacationers traveling overseas this summer. The one thing that does make a difference they say: Traveling west, to an earlier time zone, seems to be an easier adjustment than traveling east to a later one.

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, frequent fliers try everything from adjusting their sleep schedule days before a trip, to taking melatonin pills, seeking out sunshine at certain times, or forcing the body to eat and sleep on local time immediately upon arrival, all to reduce the fatigue, insomnia and discomfort of jet lag.

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Some scientists say a combination of all these tactics work best, but others say nothing is a surefire cure for quickly switching your internal body clock. Older folks, whose body clocks are deteriorating, and the very young, whose body clocks are still developing, fare the worst with trips that cross many time zones, experts say.

Scientists studying the body's bio-rhythms and jet lag have their own tricks. Helen Burgess, director of the biological rhythms research lab at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told the Journal that to prepare for a trip to Egypt (eight time zones away), she advanced her bedtime by one hour each night, and got up an hour earlier each morning. She also took a low dose of melatonin in the early afternoon to help her reset her body clock.

But Alfred J. Lewy, director of the sleep and mood disorders lab at Oregon Health & Science University, said he doesn't see the point of "giving yourself jet lag before you leave." He recommended taking a small dose of melatonin before bedtime at your destination until your body clock resets.

In general, researchers said,  it takes about a day for each time zone traveled for a person's body clock to catch up to the local time. Unfortunately, if you've traveled six time zones for your week-long stay in, say, Paris, that means that your body won't make the switch until you're just about ready to leave.

So what might help? Here are a few suggestions from the experts:

  • Daylight can help the body clock re-synchronize with the new time zone. Travelers going east are advised to seek out afternoon light and avoid morning light when they first arrive. Travelers heading west should seek out morning light and avoid afternoon light.
  • Consider taking melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles. Melatonin is  sold over-the-counter, but isn't approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Because it might interfere with some prescription drugs, check with your doctor before trying it.


Photo:  Daniel Boiteau/Alamy


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