A jaunt to London, Milan, or Paris just wont feel like a vacation if you cant shake off the time-zone shake-up. Thats why Health magazine asked Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center expert Carlos Schenck, MD, author of Sleep: The Mysteries, The Problems, and The Solutions (Penguin/Avery Press, 2007), to share his tricks for combating jet lag. For more than two months a year, Dr. Schenck treks across the country and overseas, speaking at sleep powwows. And he swears hes never fallen asleep in the middle of a meeting.
Q: Everyone hates jet lag. Why does it happen?
A: There is a master clock in your brain that programs your body to wake up, have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and go to sleep in concert with the daily sun cycle where you live. The more time zones you cross, the greater the mismatch in sleep-wake rhythm between your home time zone and your “adopted” oneand the greater the feeling of inappropriate sleepiness or wakefulness.
Q: Any ways to prevent it?
A: It depends on where youre going. Sleeping as much as possible on an overnight flight to Europe (west-east travel) helps you stay awake the next day. Two drinks might help you sleep, but also drink plenty of water. After you arrive in the morning or early afternoon, two cups of coffee may help you stay up. Get bright light early in the day to keep awake by turning on a bright lamp or taking a walk in the sunshine. Unless you can take a nap at home without it affecting your sleep at night, avoid naps; they can increase the tendency to stay up too late, and then youll wake up too late the next day.
If youre going in the opposite direction (east-west travel to, say, Hawaii), arriving typically in the afternoon, take a nap on the plane or upon arrival to help you to stay awake longer and soak up a bit of late-afternoon sun. If you fall asleep too soon, then youll wake up too early the next morning.
Q: You didnt mention sleeping pills. Are those a good idea?
A: A very short-acting pill like Sonata or Ambien may help on the way to Europe, but dont take it while drinking unless its about two hours after having wine with dinner. For east-to-west travel, take a long-lasting pill, like Lunesta or Ambien CR. But never take any sleeping pill for the first time on a plane; get used to it at home first.
Q: Some people swear by the supplement melatonin. Can that help?
A: The levels of the hormone melatonin rise as our brains register darkness and prepare for sleep, regulating our sleep-wake cycles. After arriving in Europe, if you want, take 3 milligrams of melatonin two to four hours before bed to help you feel sleepy.
Q: Is it crazy to shift to the new time before you travel?
A: No, not crazy, but you have to be quite motivated. Do this in steps over a period of days. Otherwise, sleep could become a problem even before the trip.
Q: So you really never have jet lag away from home? That seems hard to believe.
A: Its true. Going to Europe, I try to take the latest flight in the evening. My favorite time: a 9 p.m. flight. After dinner and wine, its easy for me to sleep a good four to five hours.
This article was first published in Health magazine, July 2007.