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Keeping your circadian rhythm

You can’t avoid jet lag altogether, but you can minimize its effect, so you can get the most of your precious vacation.
Image: Passengers sleep in airport
You can’t avoid jet lag altogether, but you can minimize its effects on your trip.Ted S. Warren / AP file

What do you crave more when you’re on the road: great sex or a great night’s sleep? And would you rather find a sleeping pill or a piece of chocolate on your hotel pillow at night?

Those are just two of the questions Westin Hotels and Resorts put to 12,500 frequent travelers recently during a global sleep survey.

The results? Just over half (51 percent) of the respondents (more men then women, interestingly enough) said they’d take the good night’s sleep over sex; and 42 percent said they’d swap the chocolate for a sleeping pill. (Me? Well, that would depend on the quality of the chocolate.)

Sixty-two percent of the respondents reported that they regularly take some sort of relaxant, sleep or stress medication when they travel overnight.

No doubt a lot of those little pills are downed in an attempt to avoid jet lag — that disorienting, zombie-like state induced by an airplane trip through multiple time zones. Being fuzzy and unable to concentrate is no fun anytime, but when you’re trying to get the most out a few precious days of vacation or hoping to impress a business associate or potential employer, falling asleep at noon just won’t cut it. So while you probably can’t avoid jet lag altogether, it’s good to know that you can make it go away more swiftly.

How is that possible?
Seattle-based toy designer Art Lockwood thought he’d figured it out. With an important early morning meeting scheduled in New York City, he downed some sleeping pills for the red-eye flight heading east. Unfortunately, he forgot to adjust the dosage for the time change. “I stumbled off the plane, fell back asleep in the first seat I found, and missed the meeting.”  A friend of his never even got off the ground. He took a sleeping pill while waiting for his flight to board and fell asleep in the gate area. “They left without him.”

Then there’s this scenario: “Some people take a sleeping pill and there’s an announcement about how the airline regrets to inform you that the plane isn’t leaving,” says Dr. Meir Kryger, director of Sleep Medicine Research and Education at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn. “That’s why you shouldn’t take anything unless you’re certain your plane is going to take off.”

A long-time board member of the National Sleep Foundation, Kryger has some other advice for those hoping to ward off jet lag by getting sleep on the plane.

Check the clock
“If you take a prescribed sleeping pill or the popular over-the-counter supplement, melatonin, take it around the time people are getting ready to go to sleep at your destination.”

Announce your intentions
On the airplane, Kryger urges travelers to “tell the flight attendant in your part of the cabin that you don’t want to be woken up for meals, for drinks, for anything.”  (Many airlines hand out “Do not disturb” stickers for this purpose.)  He includes breakfast in the list of on-board activities to ignore and says, “Don’t even watch those movies on the plane that you wouldn’t even rent at home for a buck. They’re stealing the time you could be sleeping.”

Pick your seat wisely
Choose a seat away from bathroom or the galley where people might gather. “Try to avoid sitting near a kid and, contrary to what a lot of people tell you, don’t drink too much water. That way you can sleep without waking up so often to go to the bathroom.”

What else works?
Phoenix-based Penny Pfaelzer had a bad experience with prescribed sleeping pills during a trip to Asia and now swears by a routine that involves over-the-counter melatonin. She also stays away from alcohol on overseas flights because “alcohol is the demon behind jet lag.”

World traveler Beth Whitman, of Wanderlust and Lipstick, is an advocate of valerian root tablets, a natural sleep aid. “A couple of these will make me drowsy enough that I can fall asleep on the plane or at my destination if it's night time. But they don't make me feel hungover like I might from a heavy dose of drugs.”

Once you hit the ground, pretty much everyone agrees that the key is to resynchronize and get in the rhythm of your destination.

“If its lunch time, go for lunch,” says the National Sleep Foundation’s Kryger, “But don’t make the mistake of taking a long nap when you arrive. Many experienced travelers actually go and exercise. That jazzes them up and prevents them from desiring sleep.”

Chris McGinnis, business-travel blogger for Best Western, insists “it's all about exposure to the new light.” He thinks it’s OK to take a nap for an hour or two when, for example, your flight from the U.S. gets to Europe in the morning. But he suggests you leave the hotel room drapes open. “Then be sure and get out in the sun as much as possible for the rest of the first day. Your body will reset to the new time zone and new light faster this way.”

Try math — or just suck it up
If you’re scientifically oriented, you might try playing around with the beta version of a software program being developed by Dennis Dean and Beth Klerman at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The program employs a mathematical equation to determine precisely when a dose of extra light would be most useful in speeding-up the re-synchronization of a person’s circadian cycle, which relies on light.

Or you could just follow these simple tips from two frequent travelers:

Rob Cole, who details his adventures at Global Traveller, says, “Just keep traveling. [That way] your body clock doesn't know what time it’s on; thus no jet lag.”

Photographer and Travel Strategist founder Steven Frischling agrees: “The best tips for jet lag are suck it up and force your body and mind to keep moving.”

And if none of these tips work, you might try calling the Sleep Foundation Hotline at (888) TIME-4-SLEEP. The hotline’s sleep experts won’t sing you a lullaby, but they can offer tips on a wide variety of sleep problems, including how to deal with jet lag.

The hotline gets answered from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET, but only through September 15.  After that, you and your circadian cycle are on your own.

Harriet Baskas writes 's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , and a columnist for You can follow her on .