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The night I arrived, I told my host brother that I’d probably wake up at four in the morning, thanks to jet lag. Actually, I woke up at two.
Even if you somehow stayed in more or less the same time zone–traveling from, say, Boston to Buenos Aires–it can be hard on your body to spend 10 or 20 hours in coach class. But if you’re crossing a lot more longitude than latitude, the time change makes it even worse. I was wide awake in the middle of the night, in a city I barely knew, in a country where I could only speak and understand about a hundred words. It felt a little like a hostage situation, and all I could think was, “Did I really do this voluntarily?”
I did, and the next day the decision to do it started to make sense again. But isn’t there anything you can do about jet lag besides waiting it out?
Yes and no. The options for avoiding or getting over jet lag range from do-it-yourself methods to popping pills.
One of the pill-popping methods is to take supplements of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s sleep cycle. Melatonin levels fall off during the day and rise again at night, and the idea with supplements is to chemically reprogram this cycle for your new location.
There is, as they say, “some evidence” that this works, although as with so many of the so-called alternative therapies, the use of melatonin as a sleep aid has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s hard to get a definitive answer about its effectiveness. Nonetheless, melatonin supplements are available over the counter, generally in one- to three-milligram doses meant to be taken about a half an hour before you go to bed.
The problem with popping pills–including conventional sleeping pills–is that a screwed-up sleep schedule isn’t jet lag’s only symptom. Shaking up your body’s daily rhythms can cause fatigue, crankiness, nasal irritation, as well as what they politely call “irregularity.” Jet lag can affect your whole body, not just where your head hits the pillow. In that sense, it may be the do-it-yourself methods that offer the best remedy. They basically come down to being nice to yourself and trying to make this form of time travel as gentle as possible.
One thing you can try is adjusting the times you go to sleep and wake up. If you’re going to Europe, it’s midnight there when it’s still late afternoon or early evening in the U.S. It may help to try going to bed earlier to get closer to European time, or the opposite if you’re traveling west.
Unfortunately it’s probably unrealistic to try to compensate for a time change of more than a few hours this way, but this adjustment can make things a little easier. And although it’s easier said than done, it also helps to get a decent night’s sleep the night before your trip, so you’re not a zombie before you even sit down in seat 29A.
In transit, you can also try pre-adjusting to your new time zone by setting a watch to your soon-to-be local time, and trying not to nap for more than an hour or two until it’s actually night in your destination. If you can, try to arrive at your destination in the early evening. That way you can spend a few hours settling in, and then go to bed to sleep off what’s probably been an unusually long day.
It may also help to avoid anything that could interfere with sleeping, like big meals shortly before you go to bed. The National Sleep Foundation also suggests avoiding caffeine and alcohol, because their stimulating effects can mess up your sleep patterns even more than they already are. That’s too bad, because personally I have fun walking through the aisle of a moving plane after drinking that mini bottle of wine they sometimes serve with dinner on international flights.
If you’re taking prescription medicines on a specific schedule, it may be important to ask what you should do while traveling. You may need to plan out a gradual transition. Finally, everyone seems to agree on the importance of getting outside once you’ve arrived. Your body takes the cues for its daily rhythms (including its natural melatonin levels) from daylight, so getting out and seeing things can help–and that’s probably part of what you came for anyway.
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