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  Managing Jet Lag

For several years, I made almost monthly business trips from Boston and the West Coast to Scandinavia and other parts of Europe (5 to 9 time zones East).  The first few trips were truly painful.  But after much study, personal experimentation, and discussion with similarly-situated colleagues, I settled on a set of principles and guidelines that make time-zone hopping relatively manageable.  

I offer these tips in hopes that others will be spared the pain of being at war with their circadian rhythms (or the embarrassment of nodding off in a meeting!)  You may not feel 100% on the first day off the plane, but you'll feel much better much sooner, and be far more functional than if you didn't use them.  

Most of this advice is geared to Eastbound travel, since that's hardest for most people.  Westbound travel relies on the same basic principles, only with different timing.

Disclaimers:
This is not medical advice. I am not a doctor.  It is a good idea to run these things by a real doctor before you try them. Your mileage may vary (i.e., any or all of these techniques may backfire in your case.)
I'm not selling anything, but neither do I have any financial interest in this advice.

Doing Nothing

Conventional wisdom says that without any special techniques, it takes one day to fully adjust for every time zone crossed.  For most of us, the trip is already over by that point (unless you're traveling by yacht).  But by taking some basic measures, it's possible to be fully functional and alert much sooner - and to feel just fine in the first few days after arrival (when most people have the worst trouble).  

An important point to keep in mind is that each of the body's systems (sleep, digestion, endocrine, etc.) adapts on a different timescale.  Some of the symptoms most commonly associated with jet lag are the result of one system being out of rhythm (e.g. waking up at the wrong time).  Others are the result of adaptation not being coordinated among the different systems (e.g. waking up sweating and hungry at the wrong time).  Thus, without addressing the problem systemically, you will probably still suffer. But by using bright light, caffeine and exercise in combination, you can multiply the adaptive effects and feel much better sooner.  Recent studies have documented these specific synergies.

Another important caveat to this program is that it's also important to keep it up for longer than you think you need to.  Experienced travelers report that "the third day is the worst", so it's important to establish a discipline and stick to it.  It's easy to go along with what everyone else is doing, and feel bad as a result.  Many people will arrive in Europe charged on adrenaline, get through the first day just fine, and get a good night's sleep, only to find themselves wide awake from midnight to 5AM for the next three nights.  Dropping the routine after two days can set you up for a "crash" just when you think you're out of the woods.

Doing Too Much

Some "scientific" jet lag prescriptions lay out elaborate formulas that ask you to bend your life out of shape for days or weeks in advance of your trip.  While these may work marginally better once you're at your destination, they have a much larger negative impact on your life (and your family) while you're still at home.  They also require you to take steps - like asking for nutritional information and weighing portions in restaurants, or asking clients to let you sleep until Noon - that aren't exactly practical in a social or business setting!

Obvious Stuff

There are several things that can make jet lag adjustment easier on a short trip, but which may be impractical on a longer one (largely due to cost to your employer and the forbearance of your hosts).  Nonetheless, if you can make these happen, you'll be that much happier:

Fly Business Class or First Class.  You'll sleep better, experience less stress, and probably be much more alert and effective as soon as you arrive.  Just don't take the free alcohol thing too seriously.  

Fly direct.  Making connections at a big airport is always a pain.  Doing so when your body is supposed to be asleep can be a nightmare.  One long flight may be bad for your circulation (take aspirin!), but it's great if you want to get uninterrupted sleep.

Book a good hotel.  Noise, an uncomfortable bed, a room with little outside light or sunshine, or poor HVAC controls can really mess up the best laid plans to combat jet lag.  Having food available at odd hours can also be a life-saver when you're starving at 3AM and everything else is closed.

Stay on your home time zone.  This is only practical if you're staying two nights or less.  But if you can manage it, it will make you feel better when you return.  Just don't get confused and miss a meeting or a flight.

Schedule meetings at favorable times.  Going East, if you have the choice between having a critical meeting over breakfast or dinner, definitely pick the latter, and vice-versa going West.

Practical Tips - On The Plane

Exercise before you depart.  Anything that will help you sleep on the plane is probably a good idea.  Getting up a bit early the day you depart is also recommended.

Take aspirin.  A phenomenon called "LVT" or Long-Vein Thrombosis is well-known to hospitals near some major airports on the Pacific Rim (most notably Australia).  This life-threatening phenomenon can occur in relatively young, fit people as a result of sitting for long periods, especially in cramped quarters or with crossed legs (which cuts off circulation).  Alcohol consumption and dehydration can exacerbate this condition.  If your stomach can handle it, it's a good idea to take small, regular doses of aspirin to discourage potentially deadly clots.

Set your watch to the new time zone as soon as you get on the plane.  Think and believe the new time zone.  This sounds corny, but it can help your conscious mind to begin working on the problem of adjusting your other systems to the time zone at your destination.

Get a sleep mask and earplugs for the plane. If you fly business class, most airlines hand these out when you board.  Use them. If the flight departs in daylight and it's not practical to wear a mask, put on dark sunglasses and/or pull down the shade to simulate night.  Try not to get into a long conversation with your seatmates or over-stimulate your mind.  Do whatever relaxation exercises work for you (stretching, yoga, meditation, etc.)

Don't eat the airline meal, or if you do, eat only the carbohydrates, not the protein (e.g. meat). The best bet is to eat a high carbohydrate meal (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, etc.) shortly before getting on the plane.  Your body's natural insulin reaction to such a meal will help you to fall asleep.  One or two alcoholic drinks are probably OK if you're accustomed to them, but don't go overboard - going East, dawn is only a few hours away, and customs officers don't like sloppy drunks.

Don't drink caffeine until it would be time to wake up at your destination.  But if you're to arrive at, say, Noon, you should go ahead and ask for coffee earlier.  Chocolate, tea and cola are all insidious caffeine sources whose effects can be magnified when your body is trying to acclimate.  Avoid them until it would be day-time at your destination

Take a melatonin pill shortly after you get on the plane at what would be bedtime at your destination (see more on melatonin below). Sleep as much as possible, but don't worry if it's only 2 or 3 hours. If you can't sleep, do something mindless and calming - not work or an action movie. You may not think you're sleeping much, but 2-3 hours is pretty good, and will probably allow you to survive the next day.

Stare at the bright sky out the plane window as soon as it starts to get light.  Ten to twenty minutes of bright sunlight can be instrumental in re-setting your body clocks.

Practical Tips - On Arrival

Get out in daylight as much as possible during the hours that it would normally be dark at home. For most travelers from North America to Europe, this would be all morning and into the early afternoon. Avoid being indoors (e.g. museums, movie theaters, etc.).  If its cloudy, get out anyway.  Talk to people.  Walk around and stay physically active.  If you have breaks from meetings, get out in the air and light. Sit near windows, and open drapes or blinds. Stare at the sky.  Don't wear sunglasses.

Drink black coffee in the morning. Even if you don't do so ordinarily, two good strong cups on each of the first few mornings will help jolt your system into the new zone. Don't cut it with lots of milk, and especially not any sugar, as these will put you right back to sleep.  Don't go crazy on the caffeine though, especially after Noon, since too much will only lead you to crash at the wrong time and then keep you up all night.  One or two good doses in the morning are all you need.

Do light aerobic exercise during the time when you would have been sleeping back at home. A brisk walk or light jog outdoors in the morning is perfect. Indoor gyms are less desirable because they have less natural daylight.  Avoid extremely heavy exercise, or exercise in the evening.  Be sure to drink plenty of water to re-hydrate from a long flight.

Don't take a long nap.  If you arrive in Europe from North America in the morning and have a "free day", the urge to nap can be overwhelming.  If you simply must nap, keep the window shades open, and don't wear a sleep mask. Set at least two alarms, and don't sleep more than one hour - at most (if it's still morning). If it's after Noontime, try to avoid napping altogether, or if you must, take a 10-20 minute cat nap. This can be a real struggle, but if you let your body go into a deep-sleep phase, you're going to be in deep trouble later on.

Avoid all caffeine sources after Noon (even Coke, tea or chocolate).  Caffeine has a secondary effect on your system 6 to 7 hours after it's been ingested. (This has been scientifically documented - I'm not making it up!)  Thus, a cup of tea at 4PM will have you wide awake at 11PM when your body still thinks it's 4PM.  Confused?  Just don't try to match the Finns cup for cup - they boast the highest per capita coffee consumption of any nation on Earth.

Drink plenty of water, especially on the plane, and for a few days afterwards.  Jet lag is a kind of shock to the system.  The more you can do to flush your system the better.

Eat breakfasts and lunches that have more protein and much less carbohydrate than you are accustomed to. Avoid bread, orange juice, sugar, cereal, bagels, croissants, or any carb-heavy drinks (soda, beer, etc.) before 6PM.  My own Euro-breakfast routine often consists of any of the following: eggs, cheese, meat, or fish, along with two cups of strong black coffee, and a piece of fruit.  Typical European "continental breakfasts" are deadly - the heavy carb content will make you feel sleepy all day. If your blood sugar is running low, try to eat small amounts of carbs only in combination with fat and/or protein, allowing them to be absorbed more gradually without making you sleepy.

Eat dinners that have very little protein and lots of carbs - pasta, risotto, etc.. This can be very difficult in European restaurants (unless you're fortunate enough to find yourself in Italy).  Meat-centric dinners are exactly the wrong thing. One solution: eat lots of bread at dinner. A drink or two won't hurt, but as on the plane, avoid going overboard, as alcohol can disrupt sleep rhythms even more.

Take a modest dose of melatonin (1-3 grams; preferably time-release) shortly before you go to bed.  Melatonin is pretty mild and safe for most people, but some people have wild dreams with it, or have a dopey hangover in the morning. Since it's a naturally occurring brain hormone, it's pretty harmless when taken only occasionally (some studies even suggest it prevents breast cancer).  You can get it over the counter. 

I've found that melatonin is the critical piece of managing jet lag going East. Unless you have kidney or liver problems, it flushes from your system in three hours.  And the effects are relatively mild: if you really needed to stay awake for some reason (e.g. your hotel is on fire), you can without much trouble. Unlike barbiturate sleep medications, most people don't get a 'hangover' at these small to medium doses. Time release varieties will tide you over for a good 6 hours.  Fair warning: melatonin is technically illegal (and unobtainable) in Canada, Europe and most of the Commonwealth Countries.  General practice however, is to ignore small doses carried for personal use.  Just don't count on getting any when you arrive.

Don't go to bed before 10 or 11PM if you can manage it. The 7-9PM period is often the worst; some people can become borderline narcoleptic for an hour or two (when their body is getting the "after lunch blahs" on their home time zone).  If you go to sleep too early, your body will interpret it as an afternoon nap, and you'll be up from midnight to 6AM local time!!  This can be extremely painful when you need to get up by 7AM.

Keep your room cool.  Most people's bodies vary their metabolic rate (and thus their body temperature) throughout the day, with a peak around 8-9PM.  If you're going six hours East, this means that you'll feel the warmest around 2-3AM local time, and possibly wake up as a result.  Similarly, most people hit a body temperature low around 4AM, meaning that you may need an extra sweater late in the morning local time.

If you wake in the middle of the night, keep the lights low, or off, and try not to be too active/alert.  If you really can't sleep, read something mindless, or flip channels - don't go out for a run or get involved in solving a thorny work problem.  Don't make contact back home in the middle of the night if you can avoid it, as this can set your mind to the wrong time zone and keep you awake. For many, this wee hours wakefulness phenomenon is the most difficult part of Eastbound jet lag to combat.

Special Problems at High Latitudes in Winter and Summer

As if traveling across time zones wasn't bad enough, when your destination is Northern Europe, Russia, or Alaska at Midwinter or High Summer, excessive daylight or darkness can make the adaptation process even more difficult.

Midwinter can be debilitating even for local residents, so at least you'll be in good company.  In Winter, about the best you can do is to turn on all the lights in your room as soon as you wake up, and be especially mindful of all the other remedies at your disposal.  Strong, full-spectrum light is much more useful than artificial light.  But unless you want to seek out a light therapy salon, or lug bulky hardware with you, you'll just have to grin and bear it.

In Summer, the temptation is to just stay up round the clock.  I've had some extremely productive, invigorating trips to Finland in June where I've gotten by on as little as 2 to 3 hours of sleep a night for almost a week.  There is some evidence to suggest that with 20-24 hours of available daylight, your body can get by on much less sleep (local people typically have seasonal sleep rhythms), however the effect is not open-ended.  You will crash eventually!  Essential measures in Summer at high latitude include bringing a sleep mask, asking for a room with heavy curtains, and not going outside late at night when you're trying to fall asleep (the sunshine will only make your body think that you're back in your old time zone).

Good luck, and happy travels! If you have any additional tips, please e-mail us so we can add to this body of knowledge.