As a physician traveler, I have put a lot of researched effort into how to reduce my jet lag over the years. Here is my current personal approach for distant trips where jet lag will be an issue:
I start with Pycnogenol to reduce overall jet lag symptoms
Pycnogenol is a natural extract from the French Maritime Pine Bark Tree. Research has shown that taking pycnogenol for 7 consecutive days – starting two days before your trip – can reduce jet lag symptoms by up to 50%. The recommended dose from this study is 50mg three times daily. I have personally found that Pycnogenol is indeed helpful, and it’s now part of my regular jet lag reduction regimen.
Pycnogenol has also been shown to reduce the amount of lower leg swelling that people can experience on long flights.
You can purchase various prepackaged jet lag aides that contain pycnogenol along with several vitamins and other supplements. I don’t use these because the pycnogenol dosage is not high enough nor is the dosing regimen long enough to be optimally effective. You can buy 50 mg Pycnogenol tablets directly from Amazon.
I start taking pycnogenol 50 mg 2 days before my departure, and continue taking it three times daily for the next 7 days. I then start it again 2 days before I return home and continue taking it for 7 more days.
I then use Melatonin to reset my sleep clock
Next, starting the day I travel, I use melatonin to help reset my sleep clock. Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by your brain to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. I’m not a sound sleeper, and I use Melatonin chronically to help with my sleep. On the day before a long trip, I will take my usual melatonin dose at a time that corresponds to bedtime at my new destination. More often than not, I usually find myself in the airport at this time. I do not take it if I happen to be at work then, or if I am needing to drive. I personally take 3 mg of Melatonin every night at home and I stick to that same dose when traveling.
People who don’t regularly take melatonin may find benefit from doses as low as 1 mg. Prepackaged single-dose melatonin is common at airport kiosks but I’ve noticed the doses are high – often 5 mg. This may be too high for the melatonin virgin and could cause nightmares, nausea, or headaches.
I start taking Melatonin the day I travel, continuing taking it nightly for the first several nights at my destination, and then continue taking it for several nights when I return home to help reset my clock in the other direction.
I use Ambien to ensure that I sleep on the plane
I cannot sleep on planes. Unless I happen to be in business class, which doesn’t happen very often since I am a frugal traveler, it is very difficult for me to find a comfortable sleeping position on a plane. I am 6’3” and plane seats aren’t designed for tall people. I use Ambien to ensure that I sleep on flights longer than 7 hours.
Ambien is more effective for me than benzodiazepine drugs like Xanax or Valium – also commonly used for plane sleep. Those relax me, but don’t knock me out like Ambien can. I also prefer Ambien because it is short acting. Its effects have usually worn off when I arrive at my destination. Valium is a long acting drug and grogginess can persist, amplifying jet lag upon arrival at your destination. If you are going to use a benzodiazapine, a shorter acting one like Xanax would be a better choice.
Ambien sleep is not perfect sleep, but at least it is some sleep, and this goes a long way towards resetting my clock. I do not recommend taking Ambien your first time on a plane. Some people behave strangely after taking Ambien. You don’t want to find out if you are one of those people on a plane. You will also want to talk with your physician and make sure that Ambien won’t interfere with any of your other medications or medical conditions. I do not recommend using a friend’s Ambien (or Xanax). Talk to your own physician and get your own prescription.
I will also take Ambien for the first 2-3 nights after arrival at my destination (along with my usual melatonin) to further help reset my sleep clock.
I use the Timeshifter App to correctly manage my light exposure
Several Apps are now available to help you manage jet lag. I used Timeshifter on our recent trip to Japan and was very impressed. With Timeshifter you enter your destination, flight schedule, and trip dates. It then generates a full jet lag reduction plan that is very easy to consult regularly on your phone. It shows you when you should try to sleep, when you should try to see light, when you should try to not see light, when you should have caffeine, and when you should take melatonin.
I hadn’t really considered the importance of light management when combating jet lag until I discovered Timeshifter. But your own natural melatonin cycles are triggered by light and by darkness, so managing your light exposure to help reset your clock makes perfect sense. Timeshifter shows you when to see light, when to see bright light, and when to minimize light exposure (including electronic devices). I found this information to be an extremely valuable addition to my jet lag reduction protocol.
It’s hard to follow the plan perfectly. For example, on our Kyoto Japan trip, Timeshifter told me to sleep immediately at the onset of our flight which wasn’t practical. And there were times when I was at the airport, but was supposed to be minimizing light exposure (I wore my sunglasses during these times). I found I could follow the recommendations about 65% of the time, but even at that amount, I do feel that it made a difference in my jet lag reduction
When I downloaded TimeShifter, I received my first trip plan for free. Subsequent trips cost $10. For frequent travelers, there is an annual plan for $29. I think the cost is definitely worth it, and I plan on using it for all trips where jet leg will be an issue.
Other Jet Lag Tips
I avoid alcohol while flying
Drinking alcohol right before trying to sleep can help you fall asleep faster, but decreases the quality of your sleep. It keeps you from reaching deeper restorative levels of sleep. Alcohol also acts as a diuretic. This can dehydrate you, increasing your jet lag symptoms. It also makes it more likely that you will have to wake up mid-flight and visit the bathroom. It’s also best not to mix alcohol with Ambien or Xanax.
I use an eye mask while sleeping on the plane
It’s best to avoid seeing any light while trying to reset your sleep clock on a plane. Seeing light will immediately lower your naturally-produced mid-sleep melatonin. An eye mask helps ensure that you won’t open your eyes and see unwanted light.
I try to adapt immediately to the local schedule
I get up at my normal time. I avoid afternoon naps. I go to bed at my normal time. This all helps reduce that jet lag!
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