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The Cure for Jet Lag

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Photo: Dan Saelinger

It may be that the best way to combat jet lag is preemptively: take a sleeping pill, stretch out in a lie-flat business-class seat, and fall asleep before the plane reaches altitude. I’ve never managed to do any of those things. Instead, I tend to thoughtlessly consume whatever wine or liquor comes my way, grab one or two hours of fitful, contorted sleep, and then stagger through the next day until I collapse. It should not be surprising, then, that I am an experienced connoisseur of jet lag. I get it a lot.

Fortunately, there are numerous over-the-counter products that claim, P. T. Barnum–style, to reduce jet lag’s effects, if not cure it entirely—some of them conveniently advertised in the seat-pocket SkyMall catalog. I gathered eight such remedies and devices—ranging from herbal ointments to therapeutic light panels—and flew from New York to Tokyo and back again to put them to the test.

To be clear, this test was not scientific. It was not double-blind, or even halfway rigorous. Nevertheless, I did my best to devise a coherent methodology. I would test homeopathic and relaxation-oriented remedies on one leg of the trip and more technological cures on the other, and make sure to stay as sober and hydrated as possible both ways. In order to gauge whether the products were working, I would keep track of when I woke up each day, when I started to feel tired, how long I slept, the time of day I started feeling particularly loopy, and so on.

Jet lag happens when your internal circadian clock—the part of your brain that regulates your sleep cycles—is disrupted by travel. The feeling can be exacerbated by stress and restlessness. Many products claim to relax you, thus fostering sleep and tranquillity, and I tested these while wending my way over the North Pole to Tokyo.

No-Jet-Lag pills, a homeopathic remedy from the same people who brought you No-Shift-Lag (for night-shift workers) and Drink Ease (“for those occasions when a celebration may lead to regrettable after-effects”), are supposed to aid the body in recuperating from the rigors of long-haul travel. Users chew the small, tasteless tablets made of leopard’s bane and other plant extracts upon takeoff and landing, as well as every two hours while in flight. I did this faithfully for the duration of the trip, to no discernible effect.

Halfway through the flight, I slathered my temples and neck in Badger Sleep Balm, an herbal, Vaseline-like product that claims to promote slumber. (“Use it regularly and expect results,” the tin promises.) Smelling like a human cup of lemon verbena tea, I then donned the Glo to Sleep mask, which emits a dim blue light when activated. Theoretically, these blue lights are supposed to have a calming effect. In reality, it felt like I was staring at the inside of an MRI machine.

Though I didn’t find the Glo to Sleep mask particularly restful, I landed in Tokyo mid-afternoon, feeling about as fresh as one can feel after having endured a mostly sleepless 14-hour flight, and was optimistic that the preventives might have had some sort of effect. Yet, four hours later, I found myself wandering around a supermarket for 45 minutes, dazed and incoherent, unaccountably frightened by the unfamiliar chocolates. I awoke the next day at 4:30 a.m. and recorded the onset of jet lag at 1 p.m.

This feeling of asynchronous idiocy persisted throughout most of my four-day stay, despite my best efforts at recovery. I dutifully applied the sleep balm each night and then fell asleep with the Glo to Sleep over my eyes and a Sound Oasis machine on in the background, a portable alarm clock/white-noise device that has a special “jet lag” setting—which is, as far as I could tell, just a mixture of all the other noises in the machine’s memory bank. (It sounded something like an angry, distant mob, but carrying wind chimes instead of torches.)

Yet my sleep/wake cycle took about as long to normalize as it would have otherwise. It was only on my fourth night in Tokyo that I found myself able to stay awake past 9 p.m. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the homeopathic products—which are big on promises but short on science—were ineffective. According to Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University and an expert on sleep, while there may be all sorts of treatments for the symptoms of jet lag, exposure to light is the only thing that affects the actual disorder.

When you travel, your circadian clock resets gradually, over a period of days, after prolonged exposure to natural light. There are several products that claim to speed the circadian-reset process, and I tested these on the return leg of my trip. The Valkee Bright Light Headset, for instance, is a slim, attractive Finnish invention that beams bright light into your brain through tiny bulbs embedded in a pair of earbuds. Though the science behind the Valkee is vague—for one thing, it’s unclear whether mammals can actually sense light through their ears—the company claims success treating seasonal affective disorder in Finland.

So as soon as I knew dawn was breaking in New York, I fired up the Valkee to blast my neurons with nourishing light. The treatment lasts for 12 minutes; while it’s in progress, your ear canals feel plugged, and slightly warmer, but that’s all. I continued to use it upon landing in New York, and I also doubled down on light therapy with the Northern Lights panel, a laptop-size light board that bathes the user’s eyes in a soft, unremitting brightness, and is meant to be used for 30 minutes to an hour at a time. I positioned the board a foot from my head and gazed at it faithfully for three consecutive mornings after my return. This may have been overkill: though it took me four whole days to recover from jet lag in Tokyo, when I returned to New York I was back to normal in 36 hours.

Was this success attributable to the light-panel treatments, or the Valkee? Or was it because jet lag is supposed to be less severe when traveling east to west; or because of a placebo effect? The results of my one-man study were far from definitive, but it did leave me with a new and mostly commonsensical anti-jet-lag protocol: stay hydrated and relaxed in flight; avoid airplane liquor, even if it’s free; get a good night’s sleep before traveling; and spend as much time as possible in the morning sun (or, possibly, with a Northern Lights panel) upon arrival.

Justin Peters is an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

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