Shedding light on jet lag
You're aching for sleep at 2pm – and raring to go at 2am. At breakfast your appetite has gone AWOL yet you wake up starving at midnight. Welcome to jet lag, the price we pay for a trip to the other side of the world. Aviation science can get us from Paris to Sydney in around 20 hours, but it still hasn't found a quick way to reset a disrupted body clock.
So far melatonin is the closest thing we have to an anti- jet lag pill. Available on prescription, it's a supplement of the hormone melatonin produced by the brain's pineal gland to help us feel drowsy and ready to sleep.
"Studies have found melatonin can help reduce jet lag for people crossing five or more time zones, but the effects vary from person to person and it doesn't work for everyone.
"It's worth a go for helping you get to sleep at your destination," says travel medicine specialist Dr Eddy Bajrovic, Medical Director of Travelvax Australia. "Studies have found melatonin can help reduce jet lag for people crossing five or more time zones, but the effects vary from person to person and it doesn't work for everyone."
The timing of melatonin is important, adds Professor Leon Lack of the School of Psychology at Adelaide's Flinders University who suggests taking 1-3mg of melatonin at bedtime if you're flying west .If you're flying east, take melatonin at bedtime for the first two nights, then make the timing of the dose progressively earlier over the next three to four nights until you take it at about 7 pm – for instance, if you take it at 10pm on the first two nights, take it at 9pm the next night, then 8pm the following night and so on. Keep lights low in the evening - bright light suppresses the brain's natural production of melatonin.
It's knowing when you need your melatonin turned on and when you need it turned down that's part of counteracting jet lag.
If you reach your destination at 6 am, for instance, get as much sunlight exposure as possible through the day to suppress melatonin and help you stay awake until bedtime, says Bajrovic who suggests going for a walk and doing something stimulating. Keep any naps as short as possible – like 30 minutes.
If you arrive in a country where sunlight is in short supply – like northern Europe in winter, an alternative could be spectacles designed to emit light into the eye, mimicking the body-clock resetting effects of sunlight. These spectacles, developed at Flinders University by Leon Lack and colleague Dr Helen Wright, should be commercially available in November.
It also helps to try and reduce anything that makes jet lag feel worse, including the dehydrating effects of long haul flights.
"We dry out more quickly in an air-conditioned atmosphere and although airlines try to humidify air inside the cabin, dehydration can still be a problem," Bajrovic says. "It intensifies the discomfort of jet lag because it makes you feel even more tired and can give you a headache. Drinking water and avoiding alcohol and caffeine will help you stay hydrated."
Minimising fatigue helps too. Bajrovic suggests booking long distance flights that get you to your destination at bedtime rather than early in the day, having a good night's sleep the night before departure and getting as much sleep as possible on the plane.
What about a pill to help you sleep on long flights? Check with your doctor - sleeping pills and planes aren't a good mix for anyone at risk of deep vein thrombosis.
"It's not just older travellers or those who've already had DVT who are at risk, but also women taking contraceptive pills, anyone who's overweight, at risk of heart disease or who has cancer - and anyone who's flying home injured from a ski-ing trip with their leg immobilised in plaster," he says.
And sleeping pills to help with jet lag at your destination?
"They can help you sleep but there's no evidence they have a direct effect on body clock timing," says Lack.
What are your tips for taming jet lag?