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Making up for lost time

Date
Professor Leon Lack from Flinders University adjusts a prototype of his light-emitting diode (LED) glasses which help alleviate the effects of jet lag.

Professor Leon Lack from Flinders University adjusts a prototype of his light-emitting diode (LED) glasses which help alleviate the effects of 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 about 20 hours, but it 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 that is produced by the brain's pineal gland to help us feel drowsy and ready to sleep.

''It's worth a go for helping you get to sleep at your destination,'' says the medical director of Travelvax Australia, Eddy Bajrovic. ''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.''

Conquering jetlag is the holy grail of international travel.

Conquering jetlag is the holy grail of international travel.

The timing of melatonin is important, says Professor Leon Lack, from the school of psychology at Adelaide's Flinders University. He suggests taking one to three milligrams of melatonin at bedtime if you're flying west. If you're flying east, take it 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're taking it at about 7pm.

So, for instance, if you take it at 10pm on the first two nights, take it at 9pm on the third 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. Knowing when you need it turned on is part of counteracting jet lag.

If you reach your destination at 6am, 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, about 30 minutes.

If you arrive in an area where sunlight is in short supply, such as 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 Lack and colleague Dr Helen Wright, should be commercially available next month.

It also helps to try to reduce anything that makes jet lag feel worse, including the dehydrating effects of long-haul flights.

''We dry out more quickly in an airconditioned atmosphere and, although airlines try to humidify air inside the cabin, dehydration can still be a problem,'' Bajrovic says. ''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 skiing 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,'' Lack says.

Paula Goodyer blogs atsmh.com.au/chewonthis.

14 comments so far

  • As a medico I was very sceptical about the claims on melatonin. But a quick search revealed there is actually a Cochrane review on its benefits. So I tried it on two overseas trips in the last two years. It worked a treat! Go Melatonin. It might not work for everyone but for me it did. And it is a very safe substance to take. In Australia it is available only on prescription, but in America it is sold in health food stores just like Vitamin C. Easily ordered online. Just make sure you get REAL melatonin, not some homeopathic alernative to it.

    Commenter
    The Sage and Onion
    Location
    Hobart
    Date and time
    October 17, 2012, 9:02AM
    • I have found Melatonin to be the best remedy for jetlag and sleep disorders in general, but it's not possible to buy it over the counter in Australia or even order it internationally and have it posted to Australia. Other countries sell it over the counter in health stores. I'd like to know why it's considered 'dangerous'.

      Commenter
      Rosie
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 9:09AM
      • @ Rosie: Melatonin isn't considered dangerous, it's just that Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration hasn't yet done sufficient research into possible side-effects and safe doses to say for sure that it's safe.

        Commenter
        PsychNerd
        Location
        My own mind
        Date and time
        October 17, 2012, 11:19AM
      • Actually, you can, it's called Circadin, and it's available OTC. It contains control release melatonin. Ask your GP for a sample, they often have some out the back from drug reps.

        Commenter
        Lady L
        Location
        Tas
        Date and time
        October 18, 2012, 1:35PM
      • Hi - according to he Circadin website it's prescription only - see  http://www.circadin.com/qa/

         

        Commenter
        Paula
        Date and time
        October 18, 2012, 3:06PM
    • The sleeping pill I bought in a news agency at LAX was the best choice I made. Slept 9 solid hours on that flight, left at night, woke in the morning, it was like a normal night, and I was perfectly fine from day 1. I don't remember what it was or if something similar is available at Melbourne airport, it had to be weak if it were available in a store without prescription, I hope I find something because I am about to head back and flying Melb-L.A was painful 1.5 very broken hours of sleep resulted in napping at 4pm everyday for a week.

      Commenter
      Sarah
      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 9:19AM
      • A few years ago my employment meant I was constantly circumnavigating the globe going from one project to another, often at short notice. Melatonin was my saviour and I would stock up each time I went through the U.S. I can't see any justification for it only being available by prescription in Australia except that it fattens the wallets of doctors and pharmacists.

        Commenter
        Spud Murphy
        Location
        Planet Earth
        Date and time
        October 17, 2012, 1:05PM
        • I swear by No Jet Lag otherwise known in Australia as Jet-Ease. It is a homeopathic remedy that you can find in health stores and some pharmacies that takes the edge off flying. I was so sprightly after a flight from Melbourne to Toronto that my husband thought I should take them all the time. I settled into the time zone really well whereas my husband who didn't take them suffered somewhat.

          Commenter
          rebecca
          Date and time
          October 17, 2012, 1:58PM
          • Sounds like a good placebo

            Commenter
            Alien
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            October 17, 2012, 3:39PM
          • I have taken Jet-Ease on several occasions and it didn't work for me. On one trip to NYC, my husband, children and I all took it every two hours throughout the flight, and once again after arrival, and it made no difference to any of us, unfortunately.

            Commenter
            Cam
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            October 17, 2012, 4:22PM

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