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Greenwich Mean Time: Beating the Jet Lag Blues

Good old Greenwich Mean Time can be mean, all right, if you crisscross timelines and travel a lot. But what's a tired world traveler to do?

What can steal the fun -- and the first few days and nights -- from either end of your next big trip? Jet lag. Good old Greenwich Mean Time can be mean, all right, if you crisscross timelines and travel a lot. But what's a tired world traveler to do?

According to the authors of the International Travel Health Guide Stuart R. Rose, M.D.; Jay S. Keystone, M.D.; and Peter Hackett, M.D.; the primary symptom of jet lag is insomnia, so drinking lots of fluids and trying faddish jet lag diets are a waste of time.

"Food has no effect on jet lag," says Dr. Rose, and as for drinking lots of fluids, remember, this isn't the flu: "The Medical Director of British Airways Aviation Medical Services has found (as reported in the medical journal The Lancet)

that low cabin humidity causes, at most, only a 3-ounce water loss during an 8-hour trip. In fact, the stress of travel causes your body to retain water. Compulsively drinking extra water en route is both inconvenient and unnecessary."

So what works?

"Sleep, relaxation, moderate exercise, and sensible diet remain the simplest recovery methods for jet lag," say Dr. Rose and his colleagues.

Here are some other things the International Travel Health Guide suggests:

  • Don't drink too much alcohol. Alcohol may cause rebound nervous stimulation, interfering with sleep.
  • Don't drink too much coffee. Excess caffeine may cause nervousness and possibly insomnia. For die-hard coffee drinkers, "Reset your watch to the destination time when you board the aircraft. Drink your coffee en-route at the destination time that corresponds to your regular 'caffeine fix' time at home."
  • Begin all activities, including eating and sleeping, at destination times as soon as possible. If you have an evening arrival, have a light dinner and go to bed late. The next day try to eat and sleep according to the local time.
  • If you have a morning arrival, stay active during the day and get as much exposure to natural light as possible. Don't nap; however, overpowering fatigue should not be resisted. If you do nap, keep it under 45 minutes to avoid Stage IV (REM) sleep, which causes grogginess on awakening.
  • Studies have shown that the hormone melatonin can reset your body's internal clock. In one study, travelers experienced much less fatigue, required less time to normalize their sleep patterns, and scored better on a visual analog scale. Melatonin appears to be somewhat beneficial, but there is much individual variation in response to this hormone.

Sometimes the best help comes from other travelers.

Julian Harrison has endured frequent long flights to Africa in his work offering helpful travel advice and arrangements for Premier Tours' Wilderness Safari adventures. He says, "When you board the aircraft set your watch to the time at your destination. Try to get as much sleep as possible on the flight. When you get to your destination, try to get some exercise such as visiting a gym in your hotel or go for a brisk walk. Take in as much fresh air as possible."

Joao H. Rodrigues Jr., who jets between Macau and Rio de Janeiro, has a fun jet lag remedy, "I like to find a good fun spot to have a glass of wine and dance until I'm tired enough to go to bed. That's my favorite cure!"

Whatever gets you through the night -- it's all right, as the song goes. Conquering jet lag means getting some rest. So don't stress about it -- you'll sleep better before and after your trip if you don't worry about it so much.

For more about jet lag and other travel-related health issues, visit and read the e-version of The International Travel Health Guide.