What the tired traveler needs to know about jet lag

  • Article by: Catharine Hamm Los Angeles Times
  • March 16, 2013 - 3:10 PM

Short of not going on an overseas trip, there is no magic potion to cure jet lag.

Jet lag is a disruption of circadian rhythms that regulate our body clocks. When we are jet-lagged, we want to sleep and eat at times that are inappropriate to where we have landed.

And, alas, flying east is more difficult, said Dr. Herbert DuPont, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. “Expect jet lag when you are going east across time zones,” DuPont said. “As a general rule you are going to take a day for every [time zone] you cross to become acclimated.”

The bad news about jet lag just keeps on coming: “As you get older, it may get worse — like everything else,” DuPont said.

Some travelers rely on Ambien to sleep on the plane. But neither DuPont nor Dr. Tanvir Hussain, a Los Angeles cardiologist, thinks Ambien is the magic potion. A recent Food and Drug Administration statement noted that the insomnia drug probably should be taken at lower doses than that at which it has traditionally been prescribed.

“It’s long been known that older patients metabolize drugs more slowly, and in the case of Ambien, there is a greater than 30 percent reduction of metabolism for people over the age of 65 or 70,” Hussain said in an e-mail. “Thus, the sedation and disorientation effects can be more pronounced and prolonged.”

DuPont said Ambien and similar drugs might “put you to sleep, but it may not be high-quality sleep.”

If you’re going to take medication to sleep, it’s important that you are sleeping at the time that you would be sleeping at your destination. “If you’re traveling east and the local time will be evening upon arrival, it may be counterproductive to sleep on the plane and then lie awake all night” at your destination, Hussain said. It may work better to take a sleeping medication at bedtime after you arrive.

Try to adapt to the local schedule

What’s a tired traveler to do? If it’s daytime when you arrive, “the very best thing to do is to get out in sunlight as soon as you arrive, not go into a dark room and go to bed,” DuPont said. “You need to reprogram that circadian rhythm so you can get closer to the schedule locally.”

You may try to get on the local schedule before you leave, said Daryal Mark, author of “Jet Lag Relief: It’s About Time.” You can change your bedtime and mealtimes to the destination’s, he said. That’s just one method, and it may not work for everyone, he said. It also can prove disruptive to your regular schedule. Just make sure your timing is on the money.

In his more than 100 trips abroad, he has found that working to reset the body’s clock to the local time is most effective for him (sunlight, sleeping and eating on the local schedule) and, most important, being gentler with himself because he knows he might feel a little out of sorts.

Mark made this point: We think jet lag is abnormal. It’s not. It’s a body’s natural reaction. Sometimes you just have to let go, he said, and let Mother Nature take over. Once again, Mom really does know best — at least, better than her jet-setting children.

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