Every good story needs a villain. The villain of my own life story is insomnia. As someone eager to be the hero of her own story, I battle against insomnia with a combination of protestant work ethic and desperation. During the past two years I’ve consulted four doctors, completed a 12 week sleeping class, taken three prescription medications, tried acupressure, light therapy, a weird diet that involved eating a potato before bed, yoga, progressive relaxation, and a variety of herbal preparations and dietary supplements. Most of these approaches were depressingly ineffective and pricey. One bright note? I’m now quite the expert on coping with sleep deprivation and as a frequent traveler, on managing jet lag.
Jet leg is a good problem to have: if you have it, it means you are lucky enough to be travelling. Furthermore, unlike the chronic insomnia I battle nighly, it’s temporary. That said, it feels crappy and it can diminish the quality of your travel experience. (Before I share my tried and true jet lag coping tips, I feel obliged to insert the usual caveat about how I’m not a doctor, how you should talk to your doctor, blah blah blah, but you know what? Doctors have been mainly been good for charging me large co-pays and sending me home with pills they warn are dangerous, so screw that).
That’s me, the hero, Saint George slaying the dragon jet lag . You, dear reader, are the princess. I must say you look lovely in red.
- Use a jet lag calculator. A quick search of google will show you a variety of these calculators. You plug in your stats (when, where and what times you’re traveling) and a custom schedule pops up, advising you the best times to take melatonin, sleep, and seek bright light, often beginning several days before your actual trip. Some of the advice is impractical—just do your best to follow it.
- About melatonin: you’re probably taking too much. Don’t think of melatonin as a sleeping pill. It’s really more of a hormone that nudges your internal clock, telling your circadian rhythm that it’s time to sleep. A 500 mcg (0.5mg) dose is enough.
- Can you sleep on an airplane? If so, I congratulate you. Sleep away but once you land, don’t even think about napping. Keep going until it’s an acceptable, if early, bed time at your destination.
- Fresh air and sun are your friends. Get out into them to reset your clock ASAP.
- You’re probably going to wake up in the middle of the night for a couple of days. Have a plan to deal with night awakenings—you should have snacks in your room and a reading light. Don’t freak out! Just get out of bed and have a munch or read a bit until you’re really sleepy, then go back to bed.
- Keep your watch on local time and try not to think about what time it is at home.
So that’s my basic catch-all advice. Hard core jet lag suffers and frequent travelers read on, ’cause I’ve go what you’ve been waiting for: PILLS:
- Actually one of these supplements is a powder. Natural Calm is powdered magnesium and it works. While not a sedative, it helps me feel relaxed and it improves the quality (if not, unfortunately, the quantity) of my scant time asleep. You could take it on the airplane to relax, or in your hotel at bedtime. Again, this is not a miracle cure but it’s the most effective of all the bazillion supplements I’ve tried. (Don’t worry—it’s also sold in packets so you don’t have to schlepp the giant canister).
- Theanine and Glycine. These are amino acids that help improve sleep quality. These pills are not sedatives either, but they seem to help me feel more rested during the day and if your jet lag is truly awful, they are worth a try.
- Ambien, aka the only thing that actually makes me sleep. My doctor tells me it’s bad news to take these for a long time, yet she keeps refilling my prescription. If supplements don’t do it for you alone, taking Ambien short term may help you too.
My doctor also prescribed a special blue light to help with insomnia While the light did not cure my insomnia, it turns out to be great for jet lag. Whenever I return from a trip (coming from East to West) I turn into a zombie by late afternoon and want to hit the sack way too early. Blasting this light helps keep me awake and to reset my internal clock faster. Regrettably, it’s quite expensive (and you know I’m a cheapskate, right?) so you probably don’t want to invest in the therapy light unless you’re very frequent traveler.
The number one best way to deal with jet lag is to accept it as part of your travel experience. Like I said, jet lag is a good problem to have, so try to have a positive attitude, even when you’re at your dizziest and most droopy-eyed. Actually, jet lag can even be fun when traveling with a friend. HOB and I invariably go through a stoned and giggly phase after arriving in a new time zone. You know how Stevie Wonder plays piano, face tilted to the sky, nodding back and forth and looking all blissed-out? This is HOB walks around toward the end of his jet lag day, much to my entertainment. Don’t try this at home, kids, unless you too have a sober friend or spouse to keep your jet lag-stoned self from walking straight out into traffic.
Do me a favor, hit me up with your best jet lag advice or any effective way you’ve found for dealing with sleep deprivation. I would really appreciate the help in slaying this nasty beast called insomnia. Thanks in advance.