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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Plane Truth on Beating Jet Lag

Wiggle your toes. Spray water on your face. Stare into the sun. Whatever you do, don't fall asleep. For the more than three decades that jet airliners have been crossing the Atlantic, no amount of good will or common sense has managed to eradicate the frequent flier's disease: jet lag. Even for the most seasoned travelers, the body's inner clock is hard to reset. As Moscow's foreign community experiences its seasonal exodus, more and more of the city will be caught in the time lag. And when your career depends on your ability to be alert from the moment you set foot in Sheremetyevo, jet lag is more than annoying -- it is debilitating. Neither the airport nor the city itself supplies the stress-free environment needed to cushion the syndrome, says Melanie Newman, head nurse at the American Medical Center. The lethargy, anxiety, disorientation and loss of appetite associated with crossing time zones can also interfere with work habits. Studies of typing speed and accuracy after extended flights have shown that some fliers do not work at full capacity for three days, said British Embassy doctor Hugh Carpenter, whose tours in China and Australia educated him thoroughly about the problem. He said he learned to take it seriously. Rather than working through the period of disorientation, patients with severe jet lag should recover before they turn to important responsibilities, he added. "It's like taking an important decision at four in the morning." Australian Vice Consul Peter Sugden, who has crisscrossed Asia many times during his diplomatic career, said he has never found an airline that made flying comfortable. "A chair's a chair, and I'll never be able to sleep in the damn thing." A flight from North America to Moscow can throw you off anywhere from eight to 11 hours -- the trip is especially jarring coming east -- but for some executives, it is a way of life. "If I have to be in the U.S. tomorrow, then I just get on a plane and go," said Dionysios Bouzos, the marketing manager for the pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp and Dohme. "Your professionalism takes over," he added. "You do what you have to do, but eventually it catches up." But doctors say jet lag can be tackled with willpower and foresight. And recent research suggests that an over-the-counter drug can directly alter the body's own rhythms. The human body is accustomed to a 24-hour cycle -- and the so-called body clock dictates that schedule, prompting hunger and sleepiness at appropriate times, according to Newman. This inner body clock is regulated by exposure to the sun. When light hits the retina of the eye, it stimulates hormones that control blood flow and body temperature, Newman said. Although light, or the lack of it, initiates these patterns, the body clock controls them from day to day. Some fliers say you can alter this cycle by exposing yourself to the sun as quickly as possible after long-distance flights. Another approach is chemical. By interfering with regular sleep patterns, sleeping pills actually make it harder to adjust, said Finnair medical specialist Pekka Oksanen. But experiments documented in the British Medical Journal show that dosages of synthesized melatonin can help the body reschedule itself. The body releases the hormone melatonin at dusk, prompting sleepiness. The drug is available over the counter as a nutritional supplement, but has not been approved by any government as a treatment for jet lag. Martina Vandenberg, an American opening a rape crisis center in Moscow, said a friend supplied her with dosages of melatonin. "He told me to take 2 1/4 every hour or something," she said. "It just seemed too complicated, so I went to a party that night instead." Other treatments for jet lag rely more on common sense than laboratory results. ?Whenever possible, travelers should take a westerly route rather than an easterly one, said Carpenter. West-bound fliers travel in the same direction as the sun, and the body adjusts much better to a long day and long night. Flying east, you get a short day and night, which is harder to handle -- in other words, it is easier to stay up late than fall asleep early. ?Big meals at the wrong time can worsen jet lag, since meals send strong messages to your body clock. Moreover, food selection can help or hinder sleep, Oksanen said. Protein-rich foods help maintain a high energy level for travelers going west, and carbohydrates induce sleep for east-bound fliers, he added. ?To avoid dehydration, travelers should drink lots of water. Some airlines recommend that you spray water on yourself to avoid dehydration. Sweet beverages and alcohol could worsen jet lag considerably, and caffeine interferes with sleep. ?Whenever possible, make adjustments to your schedule before you leave home -- and from the time you set foot on the ground at your destination, obey the local time strictly. If necessary, schedule flights to make that easier, Carpenter said. Unfortunately, no one develops a tolerance for jet lag, Carpenter said. And some people may not experience it at all -- "morning people" usually have more trouble than night owls, Oksanen said. In the end, you may just have to accept weariness as an inevitable part of the jet age.