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Battling jet lag should start before vacation

Tuesday - 7/8/2014, 4:19pm  ET

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Keeping away from caffeine and using small doses of melatonin can help battle jet lag. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON -- People in the Washington, D.C. area often travel across time zones for business or vacation, especially during the summer. And that means a lot of jet lag.

It can all be blamed on that internal clock, which is attuned to wake-up and bed times where a person usually lives. When its normal rhythm is interrupted, that clock is thrown off.

"Until recently, we didn't have too many ways of preventing it," says Dr. Gholam Motamedi, a neurologist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and professor at the Georgetown Medical School. He says there is "no silver bullet," but there are some tricks that can help travelers adjust.

He says too many people make the mistake of trying to adjust to a different time zone after they reach their destination. Instead, Motamedi says it may be best to try and reset that internal clock before leaving home.

Passengers traveling east to countries hours ahead should try to go to bed earlier for several days prior to departure. To help make the transition easier, Motamedi suggests upping exposure to light early in the morning, and taking a small dose of over-the-counter melatonin in the afternoon.

Traveling west is just the opposite -- get up and go to bed later, gradually coming as close as possible to the destination time zone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suggests avoiding large meals, alcohol and caffeine during travel. The CDC says after arrival, long-haul passengers should eat at the appropriate local time, drink lots of water and get a little sun -- using light as a cue to stay awake.

In both prevention and recovery from jet lag the same formula holds true: the number of hours of time change equals the number of days it will take to adjust.. In other words, passengers making a trip from, say, Dulles to Paris which is six hours ahead, should count on it taking up to six days to fully reset their internal clock

Motamedi says frequent jet lag can lead to serious sleep deprivation, and those travelers perhaps should consult with a sleep specialist to make sure they get the rest they need. That is one of the reasons why pilots and flight attendants get extra time off between long haul flights.

Jet lag can hit just about anyone, but a traveler's normal sleep schedule gives clues as to whether he or she will have more difficulty traveling east or west.

"If you are someone who has difficulty falling asleep early -- kind of a night owl -- traveling west is actually good," says Motamedi. Morning people, on the other hand, are more like to do much better traveling east.

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