The Truth Behind Common Jet Lag Myths
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The Truth Behind Common Jet Lag Myths

Like death and taxes and coffee spills on white pants, jet lag is seemingly inevitable.

“Everyone has an internal biological clock,” said Dr. Carl Bazil, a sleep specialist and professor of neurology at Columbia University. “When you travel time zones, your clock stays where you were.”

That disconnect between your biological clock and the clock on the wall results in jet lag and unfortunately, jet lag happens all the time when you travel.

Most people assume their first few days of vacation will be spent wandering zombie-like through museums and falling asleep in their complimentary breakfast buffets. The truth is that there are ways to help fight jet lag before you leave, in the air, and on the ground. It just takes a little research to sort out the jet lag fact from the jet lag fiction.

Here are some common jet lag myths—and the truth behind them.

Myth No. 1: Jet lag is caused by lack of sleep.

“Jet lag occurs when we experience a desynchronization between our internal body clock and the external time clock of our destination,” said Natalie D. Dautovich, an Environmental Scholar at the National Sleep Foundation. “Symptoms of this desynchronization include fatigue, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, indigestion, and a negative mood.”

Myth No. 2: Book a nighttime flight to help you sleep.

One of the easiest ways to avoid some of the symptoms of jet lag is to book daytime flights, instead of overnight travel. That way when you land, you can simply eat dinner and head to bed within a few hours of landing, instead of forcing yourself to stay up all day with no sleep.

Myth No. 3: Sleep on the plane and you’ll be fine.

We all have that friend who stays up all night and rolls on to the plane exhausted with the idea that they can sleep their way through the flight and wake well-rested. There’s just one problem: “Airplanes are a terrible place to sleep,” said Dr. Bazil. It’s better to fly well rested, especially because most flights aren’t long enough to get a full night’s sleep. “Forget about the jet lag for a minute, because you’re only on a five-hour flight and that’s your nighttime. It’s going to be hard to get enough sleep,” Dr. Bazil points out.

Unless you’re one of those people who can survive on less than four hours of sleep a night, expect to arrive exhausted and experience a lot of the symptoms of jet lag like difficulty concentrating, a burning desire to nap, indigestion, and general grumpiness.

Myth No. 4: A glass of wine or beer will help you sleep on a plane.

While nightcaps have a reputation for putting you straight to sleep, and many people have a cocktail on the plane in the hopes of knocking themselves out for the duration of the flight, Dautovich recommends avoiding alcohol for at least three to four hours before bedtime. She says that alcohol can actually act as a stimulant, which would, of course, be counterproductive. Instead stay hydrated with water, Dr. Bazil suggests.

Myth No. 5: Never, ever nap.

Your body may be desperate for a snooze, but common jet lag lore says to never, ever nap to avoid it throwing off your new schedule. Dautovich agrees that in general when you’re fighting jet lag, it’s a good idea to avoid naps, but understands that sometimes sleep is necessary. “If you must sleep during the day, take a short nap in the early afternoon, but no longer than two hours,” she says. “Set an alarm to be sure not to oversleep.”

Myth No. 6: You can only deal with jet lag once you land.

You can start the battle against jet lag before you ever step foot on a plane by tweaking your inner clock. “In order to alleviate the symptoms of jet lag, help your body begin to prepare for the change as soon as possible,” said Dautovich. “If you can, shift your sleep schedule gradually in the days leading up to the travel.” That means, if possible, pushing your bedtime an hour earlier or later each night until you are more or less operating in the same time zone as your vacation destination.

Myth No. 7: You just have to accept jet lag.

Jet lag is a drag, but travelers don’t just have to yawn their way through their vacations. There are some scientificall -proven ways to avoid the worst of it. “There are a lot of things that influence that internal clock, but light and melatonin are the two most important ones,” said Dr. Bazil. “Take melatonin when you want to go to bed, use bright light when you want to stay up or get up.” As for how to use bright light, according to Dautovich: “For eastward travel seek out bright light in the early morning hours and avoid bright light at night. For westward travel, seek out light in the evening hours and avoid bright light in the morning.”

There’s a team of scientists at Stanford, lead by Jamie Zeitzer, an assistant professor in the University’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, that is working to eliminate jet lag through light.

“This could let people adjust much more quickly to time changes,” said Zeitzer.

His research involves using a sequence of flashing lights to communicate to the cells in your eyes that affect your circadian rhythms that can possibly pre-adapt people to travel and more or less do away with jet lag. A startup is working to apply his research to a sleep mask that could help people address jet lag before they leave and while they are sleeping.

“If you’re flying to New York from San Francisco, you can use the light therapy before you go,” he said. “You set the flashing lights to go off at 5 a.m., which is 8 a.m. on the East Coast and when you get to New York, your system is already starting to shift to East Coast time.”

Until then, hydration, melatonin, and natural light will have to do.

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