Getting A Jump On Jet Lag

October 16, 1994|By Dave G. Houser

It is T-minus 24 hours and counting before your trip. The cleaners scorched your best blouse. The housesitter just canceled. The plants all need watering. And you haven't even started to pack.

What's building in this scenario is a sure-fire formula for an uncomfortable trip. If you are frantic, angry or exhausted as you start on a trip, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

A calm and ordered approach to travel is the all-important first step toward avoiding or overcoming jet lag and fatigue. Jet lag is the commonly used name for a variety of symptoms that often occur in passengers on flights crossing three or more time zones.

The most annoying factor of jet lag for most people is the disturbance of sleep. So the more quickly you adapt to the sleep schedule of your destination, the sooner you'll overcome jet lag -- and the sooner other bodily functions will fall into place.

For those prone to insomnia when traveling, sleeping pills may be the answer, but only if safely and judiciously used. Ask your doctor's advice. Whether you use a prescription or over-the-counter sleeping aid, try it before your trip so you know its effects.

To avoid jet lag and fatigue, try following these suggestions, which I have picked up through years of personal experience and from talking with fellow travelers and people in the travel industry:

* Try to start eating and sleeping according to your destination schedule before departure. For example, if traveling east-to-west over three time zones, go to bed -- and get up -- an hour later each day for three days before leaving. For a west-to-east trip, move your sleep time an hour earlier each night.

* If traveling great distances, schedule a stopover of a day or two along the way if you can.

* Check with your travel agent or airline reservation clerk about the width of seats and front-back distance (called the "pitch") between seats. In economy class, a seat width of 18 inches and a pitch of 31 inches can be uncomfortable on a long flight. Seat sizes vary among airlines. For longer flights, it's worth comparing seat sizes; book with the one that gives you the most room at the price you want to pay. Also, if the extra expense is worth it to you, or you have some spare frequent flier miles, a business-class upgrade will net you a seat that's several inches wider and has a pitch generally ranging from 34 to 38 inches. There's more distance to recline, too, for better sleep.

* If smoking aboard international flights bothers you, plan to fly with an American airline. A recent study indicated U.S. airlines have stricter no-smoking policies and better enforcement overall than do foreign carriers. The report also suggested that U.S. airlines carry fewer smokers.

* People who take medication for chronic conditions (especially diabetes) should check with their doctor before departure to determine how or whether to adjust their medication and eating schedules to accommodate new time zones.

Once you've boarded your flight, here are some things you can do to help minimize the effects of fatigue and jet lag:

* If you're arriving in the morning, sleep as much as possible during the flight.

* If you're arriving in the evening, try to stay awake and active.

* Set your watch for the destination time.

* Eat moderately and minimize your intake of alcohol, coffee, tea and cola.

* Drink plenty of water or fruit juice to prevent dehydration.

* Remove shoes and loosen belts, ties and collars.

* Get some exercise. Walk the aisle and stretch your arms and legs to reduce and relieve swollen feet and ankles. Lift your feet rTC and rotate your ankles, making large circles with your toes. To relax your shoulders and neck muscles, shrug and rotate your shoulders and drop your head toward your chest and move it from side to side.

* Don't smoke -- or at least try to limit your puffing. Cabin air already contains less oxygen at lower air pressure than normal. This, combined with the carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke, means the brain and body tissues might not get the oxygen needed for proper function.

Once you arrive, it's important to begin eating and sleeping according to your destination time schedule as quickly as possible. Avoid unusually stimulating or demanding physical activities for the first day, and don't overindulge in strange food or alcohol. Remember, your body is still adjusting.


Rapidly crossing many time zones upsets the body's circadian rhythm, which is a scientific way of saying the body's 24-hour clock.

This clock is set by light from the sun entering the eyes. The light controls release of the hormone melatonin which, in turn, controls the body's day-night cycle.

Digestion, elimination, sleep, mental alertness and many other bodily functions fluctuate during every 24-hour cycle. Each function operates when it is needed and rests, so to speak, when it is not. Jet travel disturbs the natural timing of body functions and can result in irritability, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, irregular menstruation and intestinal discomfort.

Further compounding jet lag is simple fatigue brought on by prolonged and often uncomfortable sitting, dehydration (aircraft cabin humidity level can be as low as 10 percent), decreased oxygen in cabin air and engine noise.

DAVE G. HOUSER, a free-lance travel writer who has visited 124 countries during the past 12 years, is the author of "Guide to Traveling Healthy," from which this article is excerpted. For a copy of the guide, send $3.95 plus $2 shipping and handling to Vacation Publications, 1502 Augusta Drive, No. 415, Houston, Texas 77057.

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