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Travel Talk: Take care of jet lag before it takes care of you

Jet lag is the pits. It happens when you cross several time zones and arrive at your destination during the day (or night) when it’s night (or day) back home. Your circadian rhythm – that internal clock that tells you when it’s time to sleep and wake – gets thrown off course.

You can get dizzy and nauseous. You can lose the ability to think, converse intelligently, or absorb the delightful chatter of expert guides. If you’re like me, you can get unspeakably grumpy. It’s unpleasant for you and worse for those around you.

Causes: Jet lag is called jet lag for a reason. It happens when you travel a long distance by jet, passing through two or more time zones in a few hours. If you make the same trip by train or plane, your internal clock has plenty of time to adjust to the new schedule. But skewing your internal clock is just one component of jet lag.

Other factors that can exacerbate the problem are the general stress of flying, the lack of comfortable seats (lie-flat beds in First Class help, but only partially), the quality of air in the cabins, the food/drink, and even the level of distraction/annoyance from nearby passengers. Think crying babies, obnoxious complainers, loud conversationalists and so on.

Being older can also make things worse, even if you don’t have creaky muscles and joints.

It also seems that traveling east results in greater disorientation than traveling west, and they say that adjusting takes one day for every time zone you cross.

North-south travel is less problematic because you normally aren’t crossing several time zones.

Plan ahead: the internet is full of advice on avoiding jet lag – everything from hyping various pharmaceuticals to “pretending” to be on your new time schedule several days before you leave.

Over the years Bud and I have tried almost every scheme and pill out there. What works best for us?

We begin at the beginning. Whether we’re going east to Europe or west to Oceania or Southeast Asia, we try for overnight flights that get us to our destination sometime during the early morning.

As soon as we’re on board, we change our watches to our destination’s time zone so we’re not computing how far “behind” we are in sleep. We’ve already planned our first day fairly light on activities, sometimes allowing one to two hours for an afternoon nap, though never any more.

The point is to accept the schedule and time zone that we’re in and power through it.

Heck, if you’re in Prague or Paris or Sydney or Saigon, you don’t want to sleep the days away! We usually find that we’re ready for sleep at just the right local time.

The art of flying: Of course it helps if you have easy flights and a smooth itinerary, reducing stress as much as possible by booking generous connecting times and getting seats away from lavatories and bulkheads (where infants are often seated).

We wear clothes comfy enough for sleeping, bring plenty of our own reading/viewing material and make sure we drink tons of water; staying hydrated goes a long way to keeping you healthy and comfortable.

If you need pharmaceutical help, ask your doctor or try a light over-the-counter sleep aid, melatonin-based or not.

Still, your chances of sleeping well on a plane are slim to none (though Bud does better than I do), so don’t panic.

Pick up a book or video, walk the aisle a few times and let your mind anticipate the joys of a new adventure. Arrive ready to go!

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