Q: I travel a lot and often suffer jet lag. What can I take or do to maintain energy and sleep well even when I cross time zones?
A: Our body has a biological cycle closely tied to the cycle of light and dark during the course of a 24-hour day. Melatonin, a secretion from the pineal gland deep in the center of the brain, rises about 30 minutes after the lights go out, and allows us to fall asleep. Exposure to light at night, even the amount emitted from lamps in a typical living room, suppresses melatonin secretion completely and makes it difficult to sleep. On the other hand, exposure to intense bright light during the day increases natural secretions later at night. When you cross time zones, you may lose daylight or darkness, so your sleep cycle can suffer. To adapt, you can exploit the effects of darkness and light on pineal secretions. First take a walk or otherwise go outside for 20 to 30 minutes during the brightest part of the day in the new location. Then, as bedtime approaches, turn the lights off, get horizontal, and relax. The amount of light from a travel–reading light will usually not interfere with falling asleep. Television, however, can suppress your natural melatonin secretion and make it harder to fall asleep.
Taking a melatonin supplement about a half hour before bedtime at your destination may also help. You don’t need to take much. One-half to 1 mg doses of melatonin supplements are adequate to raise your melatonin level to its normal physiological peak. Take this three nights in a row to help reset your circadian clock.
Another way to trick the body: Skip your last meal before arriving at your destination in the new time zone. Arrive hungry, and then begin to eat on the normal schedule for your new location. Eat a large high-protein breakfast and only a small meal after the sun goes down for the first few days. The high protein in the morning initiates the daily growth hormone cycle and helps reset it. But a large meal in the evening can keep the cycle at its pretravel setting.
Simple teas of chamomile, lavender blossoms, or lemon balm offer gentle assistance for sleep. A variety of tea or tincture formulas containing herbs such as skullcap, passion flower, valerian, hops, or vervain can also help. If your insomnia is especially stubborn, take a dose of a tincture formula 90 minutes before bedtime in your new location and begin to unwind. Then take another dose 30 minutes before retiring and lower the lights. Take a third and final dose just before you go to sleep. You can also keep a fourth dose by your bed in case you wake up during the night.
By Paul Bergner