Leaving on a jet plane… don’t know when I’ll wake up again!

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We’ve been seeing a lot of students here recently who are preparing for travel abroad – see our last post. These visits are fun. They’re exciting! Pack your bags; brave new world; new foods; exotic locations….It takes me back to my own study abroad days. Thinking about flying across the ocean, though, makes me tired.

Jet lag occurs when you cross multiple time zones without giving your brain – which regulates your internal (cirdadian) clock – time to catch up. It’s a common phenomenon of air travel; if you’ve even flown across country you might have experienced it: irritability or moodiness, fatigue and daytime sleepiness, insomnia (ironic in that you are bone-tired but can’t fall asleep), upset stomach, and trouble concentrating.  Jet lag may cause one, several, or all of these symptoms.

Some people can tolerate big changes in their sleep-wake cycle, but for most of us, the farther the travel the more severe the symptoms. In general, traveling east-to-west is more difficult that west-to-east. And those of us who fly in the cattle car, er, coach, find that we tend to be more tired than those who recline and sleep in business and first class.

There are some things you can do to minimize the pain:

  • Try to get regular sleep and exercise before you go. Travel itself is tiring (and boring). You sit in one place for long periods of time, have weird meals, don’t drink normally, and often don’t sleep well en route. Don’t leave home without your Visa card in your wallet and a good night of sleep under your belt.
  • If you can, start moving your bedtime an hour or so in the direction of your time change. That means if you’re traveling eastward, try to go to bed and wake up a couple of hours earlier for a few days before your trip. If heading westward, try to go to bed and wake up a couple of hours later.
  • If you need it, try using melatonin (5mg or so) at bedtime to make you drowsy and nudge that clock along. You can do this before leaving home, once you arrive at your destination, and after you get home if you need to.
  • Once you arrive at your destination (or home), aim in the direction of a normal bedtime. If you land first thing in the morning and sleep for seven hours you might have trouble going to bed that evening. Try limiting naps to just what you need.
  • Exposure to sunlight (if you’re lucky enough to be escaping the endless gray-skied Central Ohio winter) helps your internal clock reset. Doing it right is a little tricky. The timing of exposure depends on which direction you’re travelling. Going east, exposure in the morning is most helpful; going west, exposure is more effective in the early evening.
  • If you’ve had big problems in the past adjusting to a new time zone; if you’re traveling far away, or if you have multiple legs in your journey, come see a provider at Student Health. There are some other medications and strategies we can talk about to help you get off to a running start.

Don’t forget to send us a postcard!

Victoria Rentel, MD (OSU SHS)

American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s Melatonin information page.

Jet Lag. Sack, RL. New England Journal of Medicine Volume 362:440-447. February 4, 2010.

Photo: forbestraveler.com