Opinion » Antidote

Lunacycles

by

I am completely consumed by your column and spend nearly every waking moment thinking of it. Then I often laugh myself to sleep with some of those crazy jokes you make. I must be your biggest fan. I could go on and on, but here's my question: I'm planning my first trip overseas this summer and I want to know how to avoid jet lag. Regardless of what you say, I could never be disappointed in you; you're the best.

—Sincerely, Dr. Ed

What nice things to hear! If I hadn't written that myself, I'd never believe it. This positive affirmation class I'm taking is really paying off. My self-esteem is rising so fast, I'll be at Master Level 5: Bill O'Reilly inside of 30 days.

One thing that could set my progress back is jet lag, the temporary physical and psychological depression resulting from an abrupt change in the body's internal clock. Though the extent to which one is affected varies widely, symptoms include headache, stomach disorders, irritability, disorientation and the unlikely combination of fatigue and insomnia. Rapid journeys east, during which your travel day feels shortened, appear to cause more trouble than westward trips.

Our bodies' clocks are set to a 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm that keeps us synced up to the light and dark tempo of the outer world. A discord in this system is a recognized medical condition, even having its own diagnosis code: 307.45 - Circadian Rhythm Disorder. Judging by his choreography, I'm fairly sure American Idol winner Taylor Hicks suffers from a bad case of something similar.

A general rule of thumb is to expect a full day's recovery for each time zone (or hour) shifted. While that may be valid, it also seems rather impractical given the brevity of a typical vacation. Suggestions for minimizing the physical effects can be complex or of dubious utility. For example, shifting your sleep and meal times in the days before travel is effective, yet also fairly inconvenient. Staying hydrated in the air is certainly a good idea, however advice to drink coffee every two hours seems destined to become a future humorous travel anecdote. Acquaintances who fly for a living tell me most cabin attendants simply force themselves to remain awake until night falls at their destination. Still, there are those among us who believe all disorders require a convenient pill. For them, there's melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the tiny pineal gland inside your head. Its production is stimulated by darkness, suggesting that the hormone is involved in promoting or maintaining sleep. Melatonin supplements have been tested for alleviating jet lag symptoms and most studies demonstrate excellent results. One review of all the published research called it "remarkably effective," and recommended a pre-trip dose of about 3 milligrams to be taken near the new target bedtime.

Given the power of most hormones, this pill is unexpectedly safe--especially when used for short-term jet lag adaptation. People on blood-thinning medications, however, should avoid the supplement. Melatonin works best when taken just prior to sleep and in complete darkness (since light may negate the effects). Some say melatonin may make eyes more sensitive to sunlight, but ever since Holiday Inns installed blackout curtains capable of shielding above-ground nuclear tests, you'll probably be fine.

Because my affirmations include "I am an excellent planner," I've already got a strategy laid out. A few nights before I leave, I'll gradually begin bumping up my mealtimes and bedtimes a few hours. Then, on the flight, I'll stay hydrated with plenty of water and nap as necessary. Avoiding starches and sweets on arrival will steady my blood sugar and getting lots of sunlight will help reset my circadian rhythm (sadly, this will not be effective for Taylor Hicks).

If I can stay awake until my new bedtime, I get milk and cookies. Not just an indulgence, the milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to make melatonin. And the cookies provide the simple sugars that will probably knock me out—not that I'm likely to need much help by that point. But, if I do, I'll take a melatonin tablet before closing the blinds.

With my newfound confidence from all these affirmations, along with renewed energy from a good night's sleep, I'm certain I can easily project the swaggering, self-possessed, loud American tourist that all foreigners have come to love. First though, I'll have to clear one final thing with my cocksure inspiration Bill O'Reilly: Are we still boycotting France?

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your berets and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).