Get Some Sleep; Worrying about Jet Lag Might Make Anybody Stay Awake

Article excerpt

Byline: Anna Kuchment (Graphic by Josh Ulick and Karl Gude)

Christopher Lotz, an attorney from San Antonio, Texas, has his travel routine down to a science. Three days before a transatlantic flight, he begins going to bed and waking up earlier, nudging his body clock toward European time. Then, on the day of his flight, he eats his last meal at 2 p.m. (dinnertime in Europe) and heads to the airport for a late-evening departure. Once onboard the plane, he pops a dose of the prescription sleeping pill Ambien, dons eyeshades and earplugs and settles into his cramped coach seat. "Before you know it I'm asleep, and I wake up when they're doing the morning meal service," he says. Coming off the plane, he feels refreshed and ready to tackle client meetings--without needing a nap first.

Jet lag has been the bane of business travelers since the birth of international flight. But while aviation technology has advanced well beyond Charles Lindbergh's monoplane, a cure for "circadian-rhythm stress" has remained as elusive as a fix for the common cold. Type the words "jet lag" and "remedy" into a search engine, and you'll find everything from fad diets to homeopathic pills to portable "light therapy" lamps. (Some fliers, no doubt, have tried them all.) A traveler's best bet, experts say, is to follow Lotz's approach: get plenty of rest during your flight and, when possible, sync your sleep schedule with that of your destination a few days ahead of time.

Of course, not everyone can sleep on a noisy jet. That's why more travelers are experimenting with prescriptions, often (and unwisely) trading tips and tablets at airports. Justin Shasha, a 29-year-old management consultant from London, recalls watching a group of well-dressed middle-aged women--or "yummy mummies" in British terminology--swapping meds at a first-class lounge in Honolulu. "It was like a street corner in the 'hood," he says. When Shasha approached, an Australian woman handed him some "excellent pink pills" that turned out to be the anti-anxiety drug propranolol. He says they helped him sleep like a baby all the way to Sydney.

In fact, travelers should be extremely cautious with pills. Dr. James Walsh, chairman of the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C., says he'd recommend only two medications to help fliers sleep: the prescription drugs Ambien and Sonata (consult your doctor before taking any drugs). "You want a medication that stays in your body four to six hours," he says. Anything longer lasting--antihistamines, antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills and over-the-counter sleep aids--can make you woozy. (Sonata promotes sleep for about four hours, Ambien for about six hours.) To sleep more soundly, Walsh also recommends taking the pills for the first two nights of a trip. "If you can eliminate sleep deprivation," he says, "that's half of it."

Though Ambien is becoming more popular with travelers, melatonin still seems to be the No. …