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Jet lag is a sleep phase disorder that occurs when traveling across time zones. In the days of leisurely ocean liner crossings and cross-country rail travel, the body had time to adjust to different time zones, but the advent of air travel changed that.
When you cross into a new time zone, your body stays on its original biological schedule for several days, so you feel sleepy during the daytime and wide awake at night. How badly you suffer from jet lag depends on the number of time zones you crossed and the direction in which you flew. When your sleep and wake patterns remain set to your home time zone, you may have trouble getting to sleep or wake up too early, your sleep becomes fragmented, and you may awaken frequently during the night.
Jet lag symptoms usually last longer after an eastbound flight, which can shorten your day by several hours. When you fly from Los Angeles to New York City, for example, you may have trouble getting to sleep. By contrast, westbound flights lengthen your day, making it easier to adjust. When you head to L.A. from New York, you’re more likely to awaken too early.
People over age 50 are more prone to developing jet lag. And if you’re sleep-deprived to begin with, your jet lag may be worse. Other jet lag symptoms can include gastrointestinal upsets, headaches, and muscle aches.
Treating Jet Lag
The best advice is to follow the sun. Take a night or overnight flight eastbound so that you can sleep on the plane (take a sleep aid, if needed). If you arrive in the morning, get out in the sun as soon as possible, so your body gets the proper light-dark cues for sleep in that time zone. If you take a morning flight westbound, hit the sack at your usual time (even if being in the new time zone puts bedtime a couple of hours later), so that your body stays more in sync with your normal sleep-wake patterns. Avoid alcohol and eat appropriate meals at appropriate times once you reach your destination. Napping is a mixed blessing. It may limit your sleep deprivation, which is a jet lag symptom, but it also may interfere with your ability to sleep through the night.
While melatonin may help some people with sleep phase problems, there is little evidence that it can prevent jet lag. However, newer strategies for combining melatonin with light exposure days before you take your flight may be helpful.
Research carried out in animals suggests that fasting before a long flight might help prevent jet lag. Normally, the body’s natural circadian clock responds to light, but the study found that a second clock takes over when food is scarce. Fasting for about 16 hours is enough to engage the second clock, which exists in all mammals, including humans. Although not yet proven to work in people, manipulating this clock by fasting before a long flight might engage the new clock, possibly helping you adjust more quickly to a new time zone.
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