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September 20, 1999
Jet Lag: Combating the Drag
By Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

Don't let jet lag get you down

It used to be that I could fly to France from Washington, D.C., for the weekend and never feel the effects of jet lag. I chalked my resistance up to love (which they say conquers all), since I was going there to see my fiancé -- now husband -- who called France home.

Traveling to France today is an entirely different story. Like most international voyagers, I experience jet lag, which manifests itself as a pronounced lack of energy, sporadic moments of dazed immobility, and several nights of fitful sleep. Add to this my responsibility for two jet-lagged toddlers, and I can become downright irritable and unpleasant to be around until my interior clock adjusts.

Almost all international travelers suffer from jet lag, which is the body's inability to adapt its internal circadian rhythm to the day/night cycle of a new environment. A NASA study on the effects of jet lag on aviation professionals determined that the condition is physiological, although it affects all travelers slightly differently. Generally, the more time zones crossed, the worse the jet lag, but a number of other factors also contribute to its severity:

  • Dehydration is a major culprit in exacerbating the effects of jet lag. The air inside airplanes is notoriously dry, and it contributes to dehydration, which can cause nagging headaches.
  • Alcohol contributes to dehydration and can deal the body an additional blow in the form of a hangover.
  • The inability to move about freely and give your body the exercise it needs contributes to jet lag and the body's general feeling of lethargy and fatigue.
  • Altitude and pressure change also aggravate jet lag. The reduced barometric pressure in the cabin is the main culprit.

Although some might argue otherwise, there is no real "cure" for jet lag. The scientific community has yet to come to a conclusion regarding remedies such as the hormone melatonin or manufactured homeopathic products like No-Jet-Lag. The jury is also still out on jet-lag-avoidance diets and photo-sensory treatment regimes (using light to trick your body into thinking it's still in its original time zone). There are, however, several steps NASA recommends for reducing jet lag's negative effects:

  • Drink plenty of water (at least 8 ounces for every hour you are in the air) during your flight. Carry on a bottle of your own if you have room in your baggage.
  • Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages as much as possible before and during the flight. Consult your doctor before taking sleeping pills.
  • Move around as much as you can during your flight. Walk the aisles, stand up frequently, stretch, and wriggle in your seat. Walk around the airport during layovers.
  • Be prepared for the flight. Before leaving on an international trip, get plenty of rest and a healthy dose of exercise. Pack earplugs, neck rests, eye covers, and any other useful sleep aids.

Many frequent international travelers insist that spending several hours outdoors upon arrival, avoiding naps, and adopting local mealtimes help to combat jet lag as well. Or you could take my advice, and just fall in love.