Taking some steps to cope with jet lag

Ask The Expert Andrea Meredith University Of Maryland School Of Medicine

April 13, 2009|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,liz.atwood@baltsun.com

Travel season is approaching, and those flying to Europe or heading to the West Coast can expect to experience jet lag. The fatigue, stomach upset and disorientation that occurs is normal, says Dr. Andrea Meredith, assistant professor of physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She offers some suggestions on how to deal with the discomfort.

Why do people feel so crummy when they move across time zones?

Jet lag, which is what you are referring to, is a disruption of the circadian rhythms. It happens when the body's clock and the destination's clock are out of sync.

Then jet lag is more than a lack of sleep?

It's definitely more than a lack of sleep. You can take a flight across the time zones, and even if you sleep you can still experience symptoms of jet lag.

What causes these disruptions in the body's rhythms?

Light primarily drives the brain clock. Because the brain's clock receives light information about the new time zone directly from your eyes, it actually shifts faster than the clocks in the rest of the body. Bodily tissues have their own clocks - liver, kidney, stomach, intestines, etc. Part of jet lag may be a misalignment of the brain's clock and these peripheral clocks.

What are the symptoms of jet lag?

The symptoms are fatigue, insomnia, gastrointestinal upset, headache, trouble focusing and generally feeling "out of whack."

How long do the symptoms last?

It really varies by individual, but there is a general rule of thumb that you can figure on about a day to shift per every time zone you travel through.

Does it make a difference how fast you travel - whether you fly, drive or take a boat?

The slower you move through time zones, the more time your body has to catch up and the fewer symptoms you'll feel.

How do people who travel regularly cope with this?

Really, the people who are successful are those who try to stay in their own time zones behaviorally. If you fly to the West Coast and try to get up early like you're still on East Coast time, you'll experience fewer symptoms. The worst is when you are flying to China, which is 13 hours off.

Is jet lag worse going west to east or east to west?

Most people say going to the east is harder. The reason for that is most people find it harder to get up earlier.

Is there anything you can do to reduce the symptoms of jet lag?

There is some controversy about that because every person is different. Some people try to preshift to the other time zone. If you are going to be gone for a long time, it makes sense to preshift. If you are on a short trip, it makes sense to stay in the current time zone. Other people try other things: bright lights, pharmaceuticals such as melatonin or Provigil, caffeine or naps. Directly or indirectly, these things are ultimately going to affect the brain's clock.

What do you advocate?

I try to stay in my own time zone when traveling within the U.S. My advice is work with your natural rhythm. There's a second thing I do. If you're going to travel to Europe, get up, start your sightseeing and engage in vigorous activity. Also, eat multiple small meals throughout the day. I feel less nauseous and more alert.

Do certain kinds of food help?

There is anecdotal evidence that carbohydrate-rich foods will help, but it may be that they just make your brain feel good. One of the things we need to realize about circadian rhythms [is that] there is a genetic component to them, and there is a tremendous variability of what will work for each individual person.

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