Dealing with jet lag

Truth is, there is no cure for jet lag, just ways to make it easier to bear and quicker to dissipate

A sleepy air passenger
Getting as much sleep as you can on the plane (or even in the airport) is vital to overcoming jet lag when you arrive.
Everyone and their guidebook has a homespun remedy for overcoming the inevitable jet lag that occurs when you land in Rome and your watch says 7am but your body says 1am (the fact that you managed to do no more than doze fitfully on the plane ride over doesn't help).

I don't go in for all that jazz about melatonin—no, not the stuff in your skin than makes you look tanned, but a hormone that's naturally released by your pineal gland at bedtime and that helps regulate sleep cycles. It is now sold in pill form as a sort of natural sleeping pill and body clock-resetting device.

If you're convinced—and overcoming jet lag is 50% attitude anyway, so whatever you think works best does tend to work—ask your doctor about it. If it works, drop me a line and maybe I'll give it a go and change my mind.

(There's also a homeopathic pill called, inspirationally, No-Jet-Lag, which is sold over the counter.)

Ways to alleviate jet leg

  • Stay hydrated and avoid alcohol. Actually, that's the same thing said two different ways. The problem with drinking on the flight is not that you might make an ill-conceived pass at the flight attendant, but that the booze dehydrates you something fierce (that's what hangovers are all about). The recirculated air on the plane dries you out anyway, so you really need to suck down as much water as you can. Hey, look at it this way: more trips to that little bathroom means you're also getting up and moving around periodically, which is also important on a long flight even if you aren't scared by all that Deep Vein Thrombosis talk.
  • Use noise-canceling headphones. This is the one seemingly silly travel gadget I actually use. These things really do make flying less stressful—and they do it on a biological level. The low frequency, often subsonic roar of the jet engines can raise your autonomic stress levels, putting your body into a slow-burn version of the classic fight-or-fllght reaction (no pun intended), which basically means you're dripping a constant trickle of adrenaline into your system. Not only does this make it terribly hard to sleep, but then, once when the plane lands and the roar subsides, the adrenaline shuts off and you crash. This is what we call "jet lag." And that's how these headphones work. If you put them on at home, you hear nothing more than a faint hiss, but in the sky they actively cancel out the ambient noise (and that subsonic roar), disrupting the whole stress-induced cycle. Also, they make it way easier to hear the movie. There are tons of models available. I currently rock a JVC HANC250Link—1/3 the price of the Bose; just as good..
  • Expose your face to bright sunlight. When you arrive and for the first few mornings, make sure you let your body drink in the natural sunlight. Your body knows how to reset its own internal clock if you let it.
  • Try to sleep on the plane. I know, that's really hard. I can never do it properly. But after you settle in and avoid eating the in-flight meal, put away your book and your headphones (unless they're the noise-canceling versions), ignore the 24 channels of movies and television they now pipe directly to the seatback screen in front of you, and try to get some shut-eye. A neck pillow, eye mask, and ear plugs all might help. Even if all you manage is a catnap, it'll help you fight off jet lag without adding a full night's lost sleep to the equation. » more
  • Do not nap when you arrive! I know the temptation is strong, especially by mid-afternoon on that first day when you look like a tourist zombie stumbling around St. Peter's with a thousand-yard stare. Do not give in! The only way to reset the body clock is to force it into the new time zone. After two or three days, feel free to indulge in that most excellent Italian habit of a nap after lunch during riposo. Until then: eyes open, back straight, and plow through each day to the end.
  • The best advice really is simply to get acclimated to local time as quickly as possible. You can even start resetting your internal clock before you leave by just getting up and going to bed earlier than usual. Once you've crossed the Atlantic, go to bed at a decent time according to the clocks of the country you're in, not what your body tells you (try for 10pm; don’t stay up past midnight). Wake up at a normal time the next day—even when your alarm beeps that it's 8am, but your tired body is telling you it's 2am.

Then again, some people never feel jet leg. These people deserve a beating. More practical, though, would be to make them carry your stuff for the first few days around town while they're chipper and you're still zonkered.

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