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How to prevent jet lag

There’s nothing like jet lag to take the fun out of a long-anticipated vacation. Falling asleep face-first into a plate of fettuccine Alfredo will do little to win favor with your Italian tour guide. But it’s not your fault. Here’s what you need to know about jet lag and how to prevent it so you can enjoy your travels to their fullest.

Jet lagged woman

Symptoms of jet lag

Aside from sleepiness and fatigue, symptoms include dehydration, loss of appetite, headache, disorientation, nausea or upset stomach, insomnia, irritability and irrationality, making for a not-so-fun start to your vacation.

Why is jet lag so painful?

Traveling across more than three time zones creates a discrepancy between your body clock and your destination time, upsetting the rhythms that dictate when to eat and sleep.

Typically, it takes one day or more to recover for each time zone crossed, depending on your age, number of time zones and direction (recovery from a westbound trip is 30 to 50 percent faster than from an eastbound one, because you’re more in sync with your native time zones).

Readjusting to new hours of daylight and darkness, eating and sleeping times is entirely dependent on the individual, but you have ways to ease the transition.

Reset your circadian rhythm

Because the body functions in a 24-hour timeframe (called circadian rhythm), small alterations in your sleep schedule can reduce the effects of changing time zones. Allow yourself a day or two to acclimate to the time change gradually. “Avoid making big changes in sleep cycles, which is akin to jamming on the brakes when you’re on the freeway,” says Dr. Vicki Rackner, a frequent traveler and patient advocate.

For example, if you plan to travel east, start going to bed an hour earlier every day and getting up an hour earlier to sync up with the destination time zone. Do the opposite if your trip takes you westbound. Rackner also recommends avoiding red-eye flights. “Quality of sleep on a plane is never as good,” she explains.

Reach for melatonin

Alternatively, try melatonin, a natural hormone you can find in health food stores, to help your body readjust its clock more quickly (although its effectiveness varies with the individual). Melatonin helps the body regulate into a new sleep pattern, says Vibhuti Arya, Pharm.D. “Melatonin is naturally produced by the body and regulates sleep patterns and circadian rhythms.” And, because it’s naturally found in the body, it doesn’t leave you with a sleeping-pill hangover the next day. Depending on how you respond, Dr. Arya recommends taking 0.5 to 5 mg at local bedtime the day of arrival, then take the dose two to five days after arrival as well, but for no longer than five days. (Be sure to consult with your pharmacist before taking melatonin, however, as it may be contraindicated for diabetics and pregnant women.)

Eat to prevent jet lag

Eating cottage cheese, yogurt and milk may also help. The tryptophan in these foods converts to melatonin in the body, says Arya. Coffee, on the other hand, blocks melatonin production, so limit your java (or caffeinated soft drink) intake to avoid prolonging jet lag symptoms.

All in all, a little planning and melatonin can help you enjoy your vacation to its fullest without the pain of jet lag.

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