Plane travel is rarely fun. But if you have sleep problems, jet lag can wreak havoc on your sleeping patterns. These tips will help you stay rested.
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Getting good sleep
Plane travel is rarely hassle free. Packed airports, delayed (or canceled) flights, and lost luggage can send even the most stable of travelers into an emotional tailspin.
But for people who struggle with insomnia, flying can present additional problems. The disruption to normal schedules caused by flying—and especially jet lag—can wreak havoc on sleep patterns.
If you're traveling between time zones, try these tips. Though they won't work for everyone, they just may keep you from yawning your way through your vacations.
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Melatonin, a natural hormone also sold as a supplement, regulates the body's sleep-wake cycle. Levels rise after dark, peak overnight, and then fall in the morning. In some studies, taking melatonin has been shown to help fight jet lag.
Experts recommend taking melatonin after dark on the day that you travel, and for a few days thereafter. For people flying east, some experts recommend taking melatonin in the evening (at 6 or 7 p.m., say) for a few days before your flight.
Melatonin can interact with medications, and if taken incorrectly can actually disrupt sleep, so be sure to consult your doctor before trying it.
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Lavender oil (also known as lavender essential oil) is a proven sleep enhancer. In a small 2005 study conducted by psychologists at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., lavender was shown to act as a mild sedative, promoting deep sleep and leaving the people who took it feeling more refreshed the next day.
Health.com's natural remedies expert, Sara Altshul, who tends to experience insomnia when she sleeps away from home, always takes a small bottle of the oil when she travels. "I shake a few drops on my hotel pillows and the lovely aroma immediately relaxes me," she says.
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This dietary supplementa trademarked extract of the bark of French pine treesreduced jet lag symptoms in a small 2008 study conducted in Italy.
People who took 50 milligrams of Pycnogenol three times a day for a week, starting two days before their flight, had substantially fewer symptoms (including fatigue, insomnia, and mental slowness) than people who took a placebo. And what symptoms the people in the Pycnogenol group did experience lasted just 18 hours on average, compared to 39 hours in the placebo group.
As with any supplement, you should consult your doctor before trying Pycnogenol.
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Prescription sleep medications
Carlos Schenck, MD, a sleep expert at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center and the author of Sleep: The Mysteries, The Problems, and The Solutions, says that short-acting sleep medications such as Sonata or Ambien can be helpful when traveling west to east (especially on transatlantic flights).
When flying in the opposite direction, longer-lasting pills such as Lunesta or Ambien CR tend to work better, he says.
You should never take these drugs without a prescription, and they shouldn't be mixed with alcohol. Adds Dr. Schenck, "Never take any sleeping pill for the first time on a plane; get used to it at home first."
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Soak up the sun
When flying west to east, you're likely to feel sleepy on the day after your arrival. Getting as much sleep as possible the night before will help, and so will getting some sun. "To keep awake, get bright light early in the day by turning on a bright lamp or taking a walk in the sunshine," says Dr. Schenck. And avoid naps, he adds, because they tend to prolong jet lag.
If you fly from east to west and arrive in the afternoon, says Dr. Schenck, recharge by getting some late-afternoon sun, and try to stay awake until your usual bedtime back east.
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Get ahead of schedule
Adjusting to the time zone you're traveling to before you get on the plane can help you stay ahead of jet lag.
If you're flying east, you might go to sleep an hour earlier than usual each night for a few days before your flight. If you're traveling in the opposite direction, stay up later than you normally would. (This is generally only useful if you will be at your destination for more than two days.)
Making the adjustment gradually is essential, according to Dr. Schenck. "Do this in steps over a period of days," he says. "Otherwise, sleep could become a problem even before the trip."