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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Health Secrets of a Road Warrior, Part 2:
Beating Jet Lag
y Shira

We received positive feedback on last year's travel checklist, and also some requests for more detail. This series of articles provides a more detailed discussion on how to stay healthy when traveling, and how to deal with common traveler's ailments. Part 1- Introduction here

Whether we're taking a dream vacation to Egypt, attending a dance retreat in Hawaii, or vending at a large festival, we don't want our travel plans ruined by jet lag and the health problems it can cause. Over many years of traveling on business in my day job in the high tech industry as well as traveling for dance, I've developed some techniques that usually work for me in minimizing the discomfort and health risks jet lag can cause. In this article, I'll share what I do and why.

Shira and Gilded Serpent are not prescribing! Women have been burned for less. Please consult your doctor before taking any medications!

Before you try any of the ideas I've suggested in this article, please discuss them with your own doctor!  If you are pregnant or breast-feeding a baby, you need to consider how your actions might affect your baby's health. If you take prescription drugs for any reason, you'll want to make sure you don't do something that will prevent your drugs from being effective or make your condition worse. If you have allergies or immune system issues, you'll want to be careful to avoid any actions that could cause you further difficulty.  I am not a health care professional, and I don't claim to know how my techniques for travel comfort might apply to your own health issues.

Why Focus on Jet Lag?
Jet lag is a common condition that can interfere with your ability to enjoy your travel. It interferes with your ability to sleep, and it can leave you feeling too drained to dance, sightsee, or vend. More importantly, this fatigue can weaken your immune system and make it harder to fight back against cold viruses and other germs that you are exposed to in your travels!

Admittedly, there are never any guarantees - it's possible you might follow all of my advice and still feel exhausted or succumb to an illness. I find that the techniques described here enable me to travel more comfortably, but you may need to experiment to find alternative approaches that are more effective for you.

What is Jet Lag?
Different people have different definitions of jet lag, but everyone agrees it's the physical discomfort that results from traveling long distances via airplane.  Travelers on short trips generally don't experience this problem, but when we're flying 5 hours or longer we start to feel tired, drained of energy, and generally out of sorts.

Originally, this problem was attributed to the body's difficulty adapting to a new time zone, but today savvy travelers know that time zone adjustment is only one of several challenges that the body faces on long trips. Travelers who cover long distances, particularly via airplane, typically face:

  • Ordinary sleeplessness
  • Time zone adjustment
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of exercise

Falling Asleep
Even if we travel a short distance and stay within the same time zone, we can still have difficulty sleeping on the road. The unfamiliar noises, uncomfortable hotel beds, and excitement of traveling can keep us awake. 

There are several tricks you can try to fall asleep in a strange place. Here are some that have worked for me over the years:

Food and Drink
Some foods make us more alert, while other foods lull us into drowsiness. If you pay attention to what you eat and drink, you may find that sleep comes to you more easily.

  • At supper time, I try to eat carbohydrates such as pasta and bread, and minimize protein. These will help encourage my body to feel sleepy.
  • I take along an immersion heater for boiling a cup of hot water and some soothing herbal tea suitable for inducing sleep, such as tea containing chamomile, mint, or valerian. I brew myself a cup of this tea before going to bed.
  • Alcohol and caffeine consumed en route can make it more difficult to fall asleep upon arrival. I recommend that you avoid coffee, sodas, and alcoholic beverages while in transit and continue to avoid them your first two days at your destination.

Unfamiliar Noises
You have probably learned how to tune out the usual nighttime noises in your own neighborhood when it's time to fall asleep. However, it may be difficult to similarly ignore the unfamiliar noises in your hotel's neighborhood. You may find it difficult to sleep with the roar of traffic, honking car horns of Cairo, crickets chirping outside the window, birds singing, ambulance sirens, sound of people talking loudly in your hotel's hallway, television or radio from the occupants of the hotel room next door, etc.

  • I enjoy taking a portable CD or tape player along which I use to listen to relaxing music or sounds of nature. I use a travel alarm from The Sharper Image with a setting that plays soothing sounds for sleep, such as thunderstorm or crackling fire.
  • I recently discovered that noise-canceling headphones make it easier for me to fall asleep on an airplane or in a hotel room. I use the Bose ones. I had previously tried a set from Brookstone, but they didn't seem to offer much noise cancellation.
  • Some of my friends like to use earplugs to help screen out strange noises in the hotel's hallway or on the street. I personally find them too annoying in my ears, but I still think it's worthwhile to try them and see if they work for you.

Other Relaxation Techniques

  • I take a small spray bottle of relaxation-inducing aromatherapy scent such as lavender and spray a quick squirt on my pillow before crawling into bed.
  • I try to take a hot bath or shower before bed. The humidity usually helps my body recover from the dehydrating effects of airplane conditions, and the heat helps me relax. I usually use a bit of scented bath oil or powder to help prepare for sleep. This is my favorite relaxation technique.  I find that the hot bath particularly helps relax the muscle knots that form in my back when I sit or stand for too many hours in a row.  (I have scoliosis, so this is an important issue for me.)
  • I try to avoid doing anything that engages too much of my brain at bedtime. This is not the time for studying my travel guide to plan sightseeing or opening my computer to do work.  Instead, I take a relaxing trashy novel to read.
  • When staying at a hotel with bright street lights outside my window or hallway lights seeping in under the door, I like to wear eye shades to block that extra light. This is particularly pleasant when I don't need to get up early the next morning. I use the kind sold in luggage stores that have a slight padded ridge around the cheekbone edge that prevents them from pressing against my eyelids.

What About Sleeping Pills?
I prefer to avoid sleeping pills, because they can make dehydration worse and leave me continuing to feel groggy the next day. They can also create a health risk. Sleeping pills tend to suppress natural movement of the limbs during sleep, which creates higher risk of the deadly blood clots that can be caused by sitting still too long in a car, airplane seat, or train.  But, if you are convinced that sleeping pills are right for you, that's your choice to make.

Time Zone Adjustments
Sleeping on the road is even more difficult when the journey involves time zone shifts.  I have discovered that if I travel only one or two time zones, my body adapts without much trouble.  However, if I travel three or more time zones, then my cycle for eating and sleeping is disrupted. Over my years of travel, I have developed several techniques for adjusting my body to a new time zone.

Using Melatonin
One technique is to use the hormone melatonin, which regulates the body's response to light and dark. Doctors disagree on how, when, and whether to use it, but I find that it's helpful for me.

I used to think that the way to use melatonin was simply to use it as a bedtime sleeping pill at my destination.  But when I tried this, it didn't seem particularly helpful.  A few years ago, I read about a study that recommended a "plan-ahead" approach to using melatonin.  This proved very effective for me when I tried it for a trip to Turkey later that year, and it also worked for me when I went to Egypt in 2003 and 2004. 

Here's what it recommended:  Several days before leaving for the trip, I determine what time of day in my home city matches bedtime at my destination. Then, two days before I am scheduled to leave on my trip, I take about 1-2 milligrams of melatonin (about 1/4 or 1/2 pill, depending on the dosage size you buy) at what would be bedtime in my destination city. The next day, take a similar dose at the same time. On the day of travel itself, I take another dose, and if my flight is many hours in length, I may need to take one more on the airplane.

For example, I live in the same time zone as Chicago and I want my body to accept a 10:00 bedtime at my destination. If I'm planning a trip to Cairo, there's an 8-hour time zone difference, so when it's 2:00 p.m. in Chicago, it's 10:00 p.m. in Cairo. Therefore, I would take my pre-travel melatonin doses at 2:00 p.m. in the local Central time zone each day before departure.

If you're traveling to Egypt in the summer for the Ahlan wa Sahlan dance festival, this chart may help:

Your Home Time Zone

For a 10:00 p.m. Bedtime in Egypt

For an 11:00 p.m. Bedtime in Egypt

For a Midnight Bedtime in Egypt

Eastern Daylight Time

Take melatonin at 3:00 p.m.

Take melatonin at 4:00 p.m.

Take melatonin at 5:00 p.m.

Central Daylight Time

Take melatonin at 2:00 p.m.

Take melatonin at 3:00 p.m.

Take melatonin at 4:00 p.m.

Mountain Daylight Time

Take melatonin at 1:00 p.m.

Take melatonin at 2:00 p.m.

Take melatonin at 3:00 p.m.

Pacific Daylight Time

Take melatonin at noon

Take melatonin at 1:00 p.m.

Take melatonin at 2:00 p.m.

Some experts also recommend adjusting mealtime 2-3 days before departure. I've never tried this myself because I find the use of melatonin described above to be sufficient for my own needs.  However, if you have a history of sleep difficulty when traveling you may want to try it. Eat your meals in your home time zone at the same time of day as mealtime in your destination. So, if I were going to do this, I would eat a high-protein meal about midnight in Central time zone to coincide with 8:00 a.m. breakfast time in Cairo. I would eat a high-carbohydrate meal about an hour or two before my melatonin dose to coincide with suppertime in Egypt.

After arriving at my destination, I take 4-5 milligrams of melatonin at bedtime the first and second nights I am there.

Some travel stores sell devices such as visors that are designed to be worn on airplanes while en route. These dose your body with the natural spectrum of sunlight during the hours when it is daylight at the destination.  I have never tried one myself, because I found the techniques described above to be sufficient for my needs. I'll let you decide for yourself whether it's something you want to try.

If I arrive at my destination during daylight, I try to spend some time outdoors and soak up the sunlight. Going for a walk to explore the neighborhood around the hotel is an interesting way to do this, and especially enjoyable if I am traveling to a different country such as Egypt or Turkey.

I often try to pick up a few items at neighborhood shops, such as snacks or bottled water to enjoy in my hotel room. While I enjoy the ethnic sights and sounds at my destination, the spectrum of the natural sunlight helps my body reset its internal rhythms to the new location, making it more likely I'll be ready for sleep when bedtime arrives. I try to discipline myself to be up and moving around through the daylight hours, without a nap, although it isn't always easy! Exercise often helps stay awake.

After Arrival
Through melatonin and using the techniques above for falling asleep in a strange place, I find I usually can fall asleep easily my first night, and sleep through most of the night.  I tend to wake up feeling refreshed the next morning.

I then try to begin my day with a high protein breakfast: meat, cheese, milk, yogurt, eggs, and high-protein vegetables such as soy.

My second night at the destination, I'm more likely to have trouble sleeping than I did the first night.  So I'll use all my tricks for coaxing my body to sleep, including additional melatonin.  By the third night, my body is usually well adjusted to the light/dark cycle of my destination so I don't bother with further melatonin doses. 

When preparing to return home, I just repeat the above process.

One significant cause of jet lag discomfort can be dehydration. It leads to dizziness, fatigue, muscle weakness or cramps, wrinkly skin, and headaches. Dried mucous membranes in your nose and mouth are unable to perform their function of preventing germs from entering your body, leaving you more vulnerable to catching a cold from that sneezing passenger two rows away.

In today's difficult economy, few airlines serve sufficient beverages to provide our bodies with the fluid required to function well. In addition, the coffee, sodas, or cocktails that we drink in airports or on the airplane may lead us to believe we are consuming enough fluid, when in fact caffeine and alcohol make dehydration worse. In addition, the air on airplanes is very dry, and sucks the moisture out of our skin, mouths, and nasal membranes. 

To prevent dehydration, when I travel I take my own bottled water on board the airplane, and I try to drink at least the equivalent of one 8-ounce glass of water per hour of flight time.

I also avoid alcoholic drinks and caffeine-containing drinks at airports and on board - if I want something more interesting than water to drink, I opt for fruit juice, sparkling water, herbal tea without caffeine, or milk.

On long flights, I sometimes also soak a washcloth in hot water and lay it over my face for a few minutes to bring moisture to my skin and nasal membranes. If I forget the washcloth, I go to the airplane's washroom and use a paper towel to blot my face with warm water. I put drops of salt water solution (which can be purchased in drugstores) in my nose. 

I don't normally take skin moisturizer with me on trips, because I usually find that warm water is sufficient.  However, if you normally use skin moisturizer at home, you may want to ensure you include it in your carry-on luggage so you can use it on board the airplane.

I find that my lips become very dry on airplanes, so I take lip balm to soothe them and use it as often as necessary for comfort.

Dehydration can also irritate the eyes. On long flights, even if you don't wear contact lenses, you may find that your eyes are uncomfortably dry. I recommend placing a few drops of sterile salt water solution in each eye periodically through the flight. Some people also take along eyedrops designed to remove redness, but I usually don't bother with those.  I find that it's sufficient to get enough sleep and use the salt water to soothe the eyes.

Avoid letting the ventilation air valve above your airplane seat blow directly into your face.  I usually shut it off.

It's a bad idea to wear contact lenses on flights that are longer than three hours, especially if you have the gas-permeable kind like I do.  My hard lenses don't normally give me any trouble, but the dry air on airplanes often makes my eyes very uncomfortable.  The problem becomes worse if you try to nap on the airplane, because while you are asleep you don't have the blinking action to lubricate your eyes. I once had severe eye pain with a constant stream of tears caused by wearing my contact lenses on a five-hour flight, and I was unable to wear my contact lenses for 48 hours afterward. For that reason, I now always wear glasses on long flights and put in my contact lenses after I arrive at my destination. Admittedly, I have sometimes worn my contact lenses on other 5-hour flights with no ill effect - the time I had the problem with my lenses there were other factors at work, including exhaustion and stress. But even when I'm well rested, I still find that my eyes are more comfortable if I leave the contact lenses in their case for long flights.

When I went to Egypt in 2004 with a group, one of the women told me over dinner the first night that she wasn't feeling well.  She had a bad headache, dizziness, and fatigue. I asked how much water she'd had to drink in the past 24 hours, and it wasn't much. So right there at supper I urged her to drink plenty of it.  She hesitated at first, but I insisted. An hour and a half later, as we finished our meal, she happily told me she felt so much better.  The headache was gone and she felt a bit stronger. She had been dehydrated, and simple water was sufficient to solve her problem.

Upon arrival, if the hotel has a bathtub, take a long, leisurely bath.  This will restore moisture to the skin, lips, and mucous membranes, plus release humidity into the air of the hotel room. The bath also soothes muscles stressed from sitting in cramped airplane seats and airport lounges. If a tub is not available, take a long shower. Even when you're done bathing and dried off, allow the water to continue sitting in the tub a while to continue humidifying the air. Hotel rooms frequently have very dry air, which can continue the dehydration problems even after you have escaped the airplane.

Circulation, Backache, Muscle Stiffness
Airplane seats and airport departure lounges are cramped. You sit still for many hours at a time, and your circulation slows down due to lack of exercise.  Blood may pool in your feet, causing them to swell.  Your back may begin to ache from spending too much time in a sitting position.  Muscles throughout your body start to feel stiff from being held in one position too long. These are not pleasant, and in fact can be openly dangerous. 

Although it's not common, people have been known to suffer a stroke, deep vein thrombosis, or an embolism as a result of airplane travel. If you have any health conditions related to circulation problems such as embolisms, stroke, or diabetes, it's very important for you to be alert to this danger and take appropriate measures to minimize your risk. In addition to considering the suggestions I have offered here, you should discuss this issue with your doctor before you leave home to see whether she has further advice.

Most importantly, try to move around a bit on the airplane.  Even if you don't need a toilet, walk down the aisle to the lavatory to wash your hands and moisten your washcloth with warm water to soothe your dry face. Or, do some rib cage circles to ease your stiff back - I find these are wonderful for the scoliosis pain I feel after a long flight. Bend over at the waist and straighten up a few times. Walk up and down the aisle a couple of times just for the sake of doing it. Walk to the galley and request a cup of hot water from the flight attendants to use in making herbal tea. While there, linger a little while and do a few hip lifts, hip bumps, and other moves that are suitable for standing in place.  Your legs and glutes contain the largest muscles in your body - if you exercise them, they will encourage circulation everywhere. Shoulder rolls are pleasant for relieving stiff neck and shoulders, and you may even be able to do these after returning to your seat.

When most people make connecting flights, they tend to proceed straight from the gate of arrival to the gate of departure for their connecting flight, then sit down and wait some more. Instead of doing this, take the opportunity if time permits to walk briskly around the airport.

Upon arrival, seek an opportunity to exercise. Whether you choose to rehearse a dance you're planning to perform on your trip, take a swim in the hotel pool, work through a session on a treadmill in the hotel gym, or a walk around the neighborhood, exercise drives oxygen into your blood, helping you feel more awake and alert. This also helps your body reset its expectations about which time of day you should be active and further helps adjust to the new time zone.

Other Products
Travel supply stores may offer other products for combating jet lag. Some may be effective, some not. For example, on one of my trips to Egypt I tried a homeopathic product called No Jet Lag, and it seemed to be a waste of money for me. I won't use it again. Other products may include herbal teas, miracle drugs, and other gimmicks.

It may be interesting to take a look at what the stores have to offer. Sometimes exciting new techniques indeed surface. However, don't forget to use your best judgment.  If a product seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Your Packing Checklist for Fighting Jet Lag

To help you plan ahead for your trip and pack, here is a checklist summarizing the items I described in this article.

Falling Asleep
If you hope to sleep on the airplane, pack these in your carry-on luggage. Otherwise, if you're content to wait until you reach your hotel, you can put them in your checked bag.

  • High-carbohydrate snacks for bedtime such as dried fruit
  • Immersion heater
  • Styrofoam or plastic cups for water
  • Bottled water (if you don't trust the tap water at your destination)
  • Tea bags of sleep-supporting herbal teas
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • CD player with soothing sound effects CD
  • Ear plugs
  • Lavender scent aromatherapy spray for pillow
  • Lavender or other relaxing scent bath salts for pre-bedtime hot bath in hotel
  • Relaxing reading material, such as trashy novel
  • Eye shades to block light

Adjusting To New Time Zone

  • Melatonin
  • Visor with sunlight spectrum
  • High-protein snacks for morning such as beef jerky

Overcoming Dehydration
I recommend including all these items in your carry-on luggage so you can use them while you are on the airplane or in the airport.

  • Bottled water to drink on airplane
  • Washcloth to moisten and place over face
  • Sterile salt solution for eyedrops and nose drops
  • Lip balm to protect against chapping
  • Glasses to wear on airplane (if you normally wear contact lenses)
  • Skin moisturizer

Circulation, Back Ache, Muscle Stiffness

  • Exercise clothing and/or swimwear
  • Any exercise props you require (for example, yoga mat)
  • Supplies for dance-oriented exercise (portable CD player, CD, hip scarf, etc.)

More to Come.

  • How to Avoid Catching a Cold While Traveling
  • Traveler's Diarrhea

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
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