Of catnaps and body clocks

You've travelled half way round the world, it's 4am and your body thinks it is time for lunch. So, do any of those jet-lag cures work? By Aoife O'Riordain
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I'VE JUST returned from a semi-circumnavigation of the globe (London to the West Coast of America, back to London, out to Hong Kong and Indonesia and back to London again). Two-and-a-half weeks and several time zones out of kilter and I'm probably still somewhere in Asia gearing up for a cocktail when the scientific reality is just past lunchtime in London. So what's the cure?

It's generally accepted as easier to acclimatise when flying west as our bodies seem better equipped to cope with longer days, but there are as many cures for jet lag as there are for hiccups (among the more far- fetched being lining your shoes with brown paper and twirling in different directions according to whether you're flying east or west).

The short answer to the complex machinations of our circadian rhythms (the internal body clock that tells us when it's time to get up and time to go to bed) is that there is no real remedy. According to Dr David Flower, specialist occupational physician with British Airways - who, along with NASA's scientists, has been researching the effects of jet lag - the answer lies in strategic napping: "About 50 per cent of all long-haul travellers never take into consideration the effects of jet lag when travelling. The most important thing is our basic sleep requirement, which on average is about eight hours a night. For the majority of the population, if you're not getting eight hours a night you're gradually building up a sleep debt. The very real physiological problem is the body adjusting to the light-dark cycle."

To compensate for this, Flower recommends napping. On arrival you should try to sleep for a short time and then manage your sleep in such a way that you still feel refreshed but gradually force your body into the new time zone.

After two days, your body is much closer to the time zone you are visiting than the one you left. However, he adds that, if your trip is short, it can be best to try and stick to your regular time and not adapt at all.

Other things you can do to help counter the effects of air travel are as follows. First, if you can sleep on planes, try to book a night flight and sleep as much as possible during the journey. Secondly, because of the amount of recycled air in aeroplane cabins, it's a good idea to give alcohol a miss and drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.

Then there are various remedies you could try. Few of these have been scientifically proven so it's a case of trial and error, but taking vitamins, drinking carrot juice, exercising and having a massage or acupuncture treatment before take-off are all favoured remedies of frequent flyers.

Over-the-counter tablets and aids which promote sleep can help to push the body clock into the local time zone at bedtime and are certainly useful. The use of melatonin (a food supplement available over the counter abroad and on prescription in Britain) is one of the most popular of these. This works by promoting the secretion of seratonin, a sleep-producing chemical usually secreted by the body naturally about an hour before our regular bedtime. However, there is a lack of research into its long-term effects so the use of melatonin is not recommended by British doctors.

For more ideas, read on. In his book Jet Lag: How to Beat it (Ascendant Publishing, pounds 11.95), Dr David O'Connell offers various suggestions on how to combat jet lag. For a more alternative treatment, The Complete Healthcare Centre at 160 City Road, London EC1V 2NP (0171-336 0466) has been running a special course of jet-lag treatments for several years.

Acupuncturist Huw Griffiths explains that "it's not just about sleep deprivation - it's got a lot to do with balancing internally and externally".

You take an Australian flower essence hourly during the flight and for three days on your return and supplement this with acupuncture and aromatherapy treatments. It's also worth perusing the in-flight magazines as many airlines offer helpful hints and exercises to try during your flight.

As for me, after various combinations of melatonin, Simply Sleep (an over-the-counter American sleeping aid), several gallons of Evian and dozens of catnaps, I am still waking up at an unusually early hour and don't have as great a need for food as usual. Apparently it takes the average person a day per time zone to readjust, so I should be right as rain by the middle of next week.

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