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THE HEALTHY TRAVELER

Doctors Seeing the Light in War Against Jet Lag : Many remedies, including a hormone pill to be used in sync with the sun, are being studied.

April 25, 1993|KATHLEEN DOHENY

You're leaving for a London vacation in just two days, so you stop by the doctor to get anti-jet-lag pills. You also receive printed instructions on how to give yourself the light therapy that will help keep you energized and alert from takeoff to return.

Sound far-fetched? Not to Dr. Al Lewy, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland who is studying such a pill to be used in combination with light therapy. The pill may be widely available in about four years, Lewy said.

Lewy's research is just one approach to combatting jet lag, the double-whammy result of lost sleep and an internal body clock that's out of sync with a new time zone. Other therapies for jet lag--a set of symptoms that include poor memory, inability to sleep at night and general fatigue--range from the scientific to the anecdotal. Unfortunately, the advice can be conflicting. Some experts tell long-distance travelers to modify sleep and diet. Others say there is no proof that special diets work. Still others suggest taking sleeping pills. Caffeine and naps are forbidden by some experts but encouraged by others.

On some points, though, there is agreement: Jet lag can contribute to botching a business meeting, can ruin a family vacation or spoil an athletic team's winning record. What is also known is that jet-lag symptoms affect nearly all long-distance fliers and tend to affect us more seriously as we get older. Those past age 50 are more severely affected than younger fliers, said Mark Rosekind, a research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. In a study of 205 flight crew members, travelers 50 to 60 years old who worked on long-haul flights of eight hours or more lost an average of 3.5 times more sleep per night during a trip schedule, defined for the study as eight flight legs over a 12-day period, than those 20-30 years old, Rosekind found. Jet-lag remedies might need to be adapted to age, he concluded in his study, published last month in the journal Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine.

The effects of jet lag vary greatly from person to person. "Some people will be sensitive to a one-hour time zone (difference)," Rosekind said. "For some, it takes three or four."

"Domestic jet lag might be more common than thought," said Dr. Robert Huizenga, a Beverly Hills internal medicine specialist and former team physician for the Los Angeles Raiders who has studied the effect of time zone changes on team performance in the National Football League.

Whatever your age or destination, Lewy is confident that the combination of an anti-jet-lag pill and sunlight exposure will eventually prove the best remedy. His Oregon research team is studying the hormone melatonin as an anti-jet-lag pill. Melatonin is dubbed the "Dracula of hormones" because it is naturally produced by the body at night. But in Lewy's study, oral doses were used to shift the time when a person would become sleepy.

"It's a safe, naturally occurring hormone," Lewy said. "It signals darkness to the brain." Melatonin, taken orally during the trip and used in combination with light exposure, could alleviate jet lag by resetting the body clock, Lewy said. The dose of the pill and the timing of light exposure would depend on the length and direction of the flight.

The anti-jet-lag pill sounds promising, other sleep experts said, but until it's on the market, travelers can use other measures, including light therapy. The premise is simple: When your body wants to sleep and you want to stay awake at your destination, go out into the natural light. The light exposure will help you adapt to the new time zone.

A variety of other remedies are suggested. Moderating sleep and diet is proposed by Dr. Said Mostafavi, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Century City Hospital in Los Angeles. "Avoid excessive caffeine," he said, as well as social isolation and napping. Once at the destination, immediately adapt to the new time zone.

But Rosekind advocates "strategic" use of both naps and caffeine intake. Naps of 45 minutes or less will refresh travelers without making them feel fatigued when they awaken, he said. "If it is short enough, it will be a good stop gap."

If you think before you drink caffeine, he said, it can work to your advantage. "Don't pump yourself with caffeine all day," he said. "Wait until you are sleepy." Drink some when your energy lags, and the caffeine will kick in within about 30 minutes and last three or four hours, he said, acknowledging that the effect varies greatly from person to person. "Be careful to stop before bedtime," he said.

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