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How to Minimize That ‘Zombie’ Effect When Traveling Overseas

Published: Jul 20, 2016

By Marcia Biggs


So you finally decide to take that dream trip, the one you’ve been thinking about for years. Rome. Paris. Barcelona. London. You’ve done your homework, packed the proper clothing, broken in new walking shoes,  purchased a rail pass in advance  and alerted your credit card company.

The big day comes and you board the big bird for the flight across the ocean.  But once you arrive, it’s like you have just emerged from a cave.  After hours of snoozing in quiet semi-darkness, you emerge into a whirlwind of bright sunlight, speeding cars and city noise.

While you can easily adjust your watch to the new time zone, adjusting your brain is not so easy. Welcome to the joy of jet lag.

Physicians study a wide range of strategies to help long-distance travelers cope with the sleep disorder commonly known as jet lag. Dr. William Anderson, head of the Sleep Disorders Center at Tampa General Hospital , describes jet lag as a disruption in our “circadian rhythm.”  This internal biological clock regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day.   

But here’s the interesting part – it’s all influenced by our exposure to sunlight. Sunlight stimulates a nerve in the retina that leads to the brain, signaling the release of various hormones during a 24-hour cycle. Bright sunlight, for example, will release cortisol in the morning to wake us up, while darkness releases melatonin at night to make us sleepy.   

To help adjust more quickly to jet lag, Anderson suggests time-zone travelers pay attention to sunlight exposure and consider taking small doses of melatonin.

“When traveling to a new time zone, our circadian rhythms are slow to adjust and will remain on their original biological schedule for several days,” he says. “Melatonin is good in helping to shift your circadian rhythm. But it’s a good idea to start taking small doses – like .5mg -  several days in advance of departing.”  

Sunlight exposure, Anderson adds, is the key to adjusting to a new time zone.  Take a brisk walk in the sun the first couple days to help shift your circadian rhythm.

“Try to get 30 minutes of bright sunlight as soon as you wake up,” he says.  “And try to avoid bright sunlight in the late afternoon as it will stimulate you and keep you awake.” 

He also recommends falling into the current time as soon as you arrive (no naps!), eating small, light meals and avoid alcohol before bedtime if you want to feel rested the next day.

“Alcohol may help initiate sleep, but it will disrupt your sleep during the night,” he warns. “Besides feeling fatigued from jet lag, who wants a hangover?”

Coffee and caffeine products should also be avoided in the late afternoon or evening, he advises. The stimulating effects of caffeine in coffee, colas, certain teas, and chocolate can take as long as 8 hours to fully wear off.

 And what about taking sleeping aids such as Ambien during your flight?

Anderson does not recommend them.  “It’s important to get up and walk around several times or stretch your legs during long flights to lower risk of blood clots,” he says. “The problem with taking sleeping aids is you won’t do this.”

  Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation for minimizing the effects of jet lag:

  • Select a flight that allows early evening arrival and stay up until 10 p.m. local time. 
  • Anticipate the time change for trips by getting up and going to bed earlier several days prior to an eastward trip and later for a westward trip.
  • Avoid any heavy exercise close to bedtime. (Light exercise earlier in the day is fine.)
  • Bring earplugs and blindfolds to help dampen noise and block out unwanted light while sleeping.

Marcia Biggs is a contributor to TGH Health News.