THE BLOG
06/23/2009 06:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who Put the Lag in Jet Lag? Tips to Overcome

For those who frequently fly, and who also have delicate sleep cycles, jet lag is trouble. As with everything involving sleep, some people are more affected than others, but it's a pretty good guess that if you have sleep troubles at home, jet lag will only exacerbate them.

As you likely know, jet lag occurs when you travel quickly across several time zones, causing your internal biological rhythm to shift out of sync with new local time. Fatigue, non-restorative sleep, slowed reaction, headache and stomach and intestinal problems are just a few of jet lag's well-known symptoms.

It's usually most noticeable after crossing three or more time zones, as longer flights cause havoc with your internal rhythms more heavily. Eastbound flights shorten the day, whereas westbound flights lengthen the day. (Flying north or south causes no rhythm fluctuations.) Thus, night and day, light and dark tumble out of order.

If you're a lousy sleeper and also a horizontal vs. vertical frequent-flier [i.e., London to Los Angeles vs. Quebec to Miami], you're in for real trouble. I was a card-carrying member of the insomniac horizontal flying club for a while, and my tricks to overcome jet-lag are well-worn and shared with many people.

Since all of the body's rhythms are affected by jet lag, circadian rhythms that involve a number of daily physical cycles, such as hormone function and body temperature, among many others, all have to catch up to local time, each doing so at a different rate.

Two differing schools suggest how to battle this unpleasant travel companion. One group advocates immediately re-setting your sleep clock to the new destination [my group], whereas others propose keeping your sleep and wake patterns set to your home time zone. [This actually works well for some people.]

Resetting your clock to a new time zone goes like this: On a Los Angeles to London flight, you should not go to sleep upon arrival but immediately get out into the sunlight and then go to bed at your normal time, but on London time. Alternatively, if you follow the second group's suggestion, upon arrival go to bed straightaway if it's your bedtime, and sleep until your normal rising hour.

You'll have to find which method works best for you, but I've found I must re-set to my new time-zone and always make myself stay awake, without a nap and no napping on the plane, either. Yes, it's sometimes tough, especially if there are meetings to attend, but better than the sleepless alternative.

Before now, most experts did not know the whys and how of jet lag. But a new University of Washington study shows how jet-lag works inside the brain, bringing us closer to the day when a 'jet-lag pill' will be available.

Here's how jet lag works: The neurological disruption involved in jet lag occurs in two separate but linked groups of neurons in a structure below the hypothalamus at the base of the brain. One group is synchronized with deep sleep that results from physical fatigue and the other controls the dream state of rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep.

The ventral, or bottom, neurons receive light information directly from the eyes and govern rhythms in tune with periods of light and dark. The dorsal, or top, neurons do not receive direct light information and so govern rhythms as a more independent internal, or circadian, biological clock.

It turns out that some of the body's rhythms are "more loyal" to the ventral neurons and others are much more in tune with the dorsal neurons. Normally the two neuron groups are synchronized with each other, but disruptions such as jet travel across time zones or shift work can throw the cycles out of kilter.

Either way, after a few days your body readjusts. Since light and dark primarily reset circadian rhythms, it's crucial to get into the sun either upon arrival or early the next morning if you arrive at night. The sun does the evolutionary brainwork for you. However, there are things you can do to cut down on jet lag's effects, beginning well before you step on the aircraft.

Now on to the action steps. Here's how I beat jet lag:

I get a full night's sleep before the trip. Jet lag's effects are much higher and more pronounced if you're already running a sleep debt. I try to choose a flight that follows the sun. When flying east, fly early in the day; when flying west, fly late.

As with all flying, I drink lots of water and avoid caffeine, sugar and alcohol. I rarely, if ever, eat airline food, even snacks. I bring an energy bar, some nuts and almonds, maybe fruit. I keep it light. I drink about a gallon of water pre-flight and only drink water, herbal tea and orange juice while on the plane.

I cannot take Melatonin, a chemical in the body that helps regulate sleep cycles. It can be taken in pill form, and many travelers swear by it for fighting jet lag. However, Melatonin is controversial and I've found people who have delicate sleep cycles unable to use it for a variety of reasons.

The so-called "jet lag diet," the alternating of feast and fast for three days leading up to a long-haul flight was popular a while back. It restricts your diet to foods that are easily digested, like those that are relatively high in fiber but not too rich. Fats tend to keep you awake, while carbohydrates usually put you to sleep.

So if you need to stay awake when you get on local time, eat peanuts, eggs, meats and other high-protein or fatty foods. If it's nighttime at your destination and you need to fall asleep, eat carbohydrates like pasta or bread. It doesn't work for me, but does for many people.

I move. I stretch and breathe and walk about the cabin as much as possible, even if I'm in the window seat and have to crawl over others to get out. I try to do exercises such as toe raises, isometric exercises, stomach crunches and shoulder shrugs in my seat. This keeps my blood flowing and prevents swelled extremities from the pressurized cabins.

I get up to wash my face several times during the flight depending on the length of the trip, but always before landing; brush my teeth and stand up for several minutes. I wear loose-fitting clothing that breathes, and wear slip-ons so I can go barefoot while in my seat.

I don't sleep on the airplane - my big no-no. I keep myself awake by listening to music and reading. Sleeping, even dozing, means I'll be off-kilter sleep and energy-wise for days. When I do feel sleepy I'll watch an action-type movie or something loud and talkative. Or, I'll get up and walk around the cabin and talk to people. You'll be surprised how many people you can meet this way.

I adjust my watch the minute I land and live on destination time. If it's breakfast, I'll eat breakfast, lunch, eat lunch, etc. It's important upon arrival to stay outdoors in sunlight so, avoiding my penchant for sunglasses, I always let my naked eye have as much sunlight as possible. I sometimes bring a full-spectrum light to my new destination; just check voltage and outlets if you do.

Whenever I arrive at my new destination, I always keep an eye on my body temperature. I make the new room a little on the cool side; I take a cool shower when I arrive and try to take a hot bath 2 hours before bed and warm up in the morning with a hot breakfast, exercise or even a rising-with-the-sun walk, again, without sunglasses.

I try to eat light and continue to drink tons of water and herbal tea for a few days, as my daily digestive rhythm takes a while to catch up. I also rely on calming aromatherapy formulas (such as lavender and sandalwood) when sleep is desired and stimulating formulas (peppermint and eucalyptus) when I want to stay awake.

There are new planes being developed that cater to those of us with difficult jet-lag and sleep issues, but until they become widely - and affordably - available, it's up to us to get the good and necessary shut-eye.

For more information on sleep, sleep counseling and her book, The Well-Rested Woman: 60 Soothing Suggestions for Getting a Good Night's Sleep visit Janet's website: www.wellrestedwoman.com Sign up for The Well-Rested Woman's quarterly newsletter: janet@wellrestedwoman.com