Every day, millions of travelers struggle with one of the most common disorders — jet lag. Its symptoms are especially troublesome for frequent business travelers. According to Dr. John Villa, a sleep physician and the medical director of the Institute for Sleep/Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, NJ, it is literally a mismatch between your internal clock and the external environment. This usually occurs when you travel over a minimum of two time zones.
Typically, recovery takes a day per time zone you cross. Common symptoms are sleepiness, insomnia, gastrointestinal upset and impaired functioning, but Villa points out that these vary depending on the direction you fly. He also encourages you to see a physician to rule out other possible medical conditions or ailments before assuming you have jet lag.
The direction you travel also dictates how you can dilute the symptoms. “Traveling east is the more difficult of the two,” Villa says, “because you are trying to get up earlier and go to bed earlier.” If your schedule allows, he suggests going to bed an hour earlier every day for three days prior to the trip, and getting bright-light exposure in the mornings to advance your internal clock. Once you arrive, he recommends wearing dark sunglasses or remaining indoors in the morning to avoid light and seeking light in the afternoon. “If you don’t mind taking medication, you can use hypnotics at bedtime and then stimulants during waking hours like caffeine early in the morning and not too late in the day,” he says.
If you are traveling west, Villa recommends going to bed later and sleeping in for three days prior. Upon arrival, you should wear dark sunglasses or remain indoors to avoid light in the early morning, and go outdoors in the evenings to seek light. “For the first couple of days, you can also use hypnotics at bedtime and caffeine during the waking hours,” he says.
Villa points out that if you are traveling over several time zones and plan on negotiating a major business deal, you should arrange the meeting when you are at your time zone optimum. “If you fly to Europe, schedule the meeting for 10 a.m. New York time and not 10 a.m. Germany time,” he says. If your European business partner will not agree to this schedule, he recommends giving yourself a cushion to adjust to their time zone before meeting.