Shedding Some Light -- or Not -- on Fighting Jet Lag

Special to The Times

Business travelers will try just about anything to beat jet lag, according to a recent study commissioned by British Airways.

We’ll drink herbal teas or fruit juice. We’ll pop melatonin, vitamins and sleeping pills. We’ll even eat sunflower seeds.

There are many factors that contribute to jet lag. But the bottom line is that air travel does not allow our biological clocks to adjust to a new time zone, according to the study. Jet lag is the result of trying to sleep and work at the “wrong” time on the biological clock.


The worst “wrong” time is around 4 a.m. in a traveler’s home time zone, the time of “maximum sleepiness,” the study says. For an Angeleno in London, for example, that means noon -- prime business time.

The symptoms of jet lag are well known to anyone who has ever flown across more than a couple of time zones. They include lethargy, inability to sleep at “normal” hours and -- at least for me -- an overwhelming urge to put my head down on the table in the middle of a meeting and nap like a baby.

Stephanie Dickey of Richmond, Texas, travels frequently to Asia. Her trick for combating jet lag? A massage on arrival.

“Somehow it resets my rhythms and I’m able to sleep normally and feel great,” she said. “I also take an Ambien the first night I get to my destination and do the same on the first night I get home. Works like a charm.”

Seven percent of business travelers surveyed for the study just buck up and try to ignore the symptoms or try to adjust by setting their watches to the new time zone. (That would include me.) Others abstain from caffeine or alcohol. (That would not include me.)

Most of us simply don’t know how to manage jet lag effectively, according to the study, conducted by Chris Idzikowski. He is a founder and former chairman of the British Sleep Society, a professional organization for medical, scientific and healthcare workers dealing with sleeping disorders.


What really works in influencing the body’s biological clock and consequently combating jet lag, he said, are six factors: exposure to light, sleep, exercise, eating, drinking and social interaction. It is in timing a traveler’s exposure to light that Idzikowski has found the most promise for combating jet lag.

Albert Fuchs, an internist in Beverly Hills who is on the clinical faculty at UCLA, said, “There is plenty of evidence that exposure to light is critical to lots of diseases, including jet lag.”

He wrote a paper on jet lag in 1998 but has not seen Idzikowski’s study.

Many travelers intuitively seek light to help them adjust to a new time zone. But it is doing just the opposite -- avoiding light -- that can make the difference, Idzikowski said.

“If you avoid light, it helps you adjust your internal clock,” he said.

To help travelers determine the best times to avoid and seek light, Idzikowski has developed an online jet-lag advisor (

By answering a few questions about your normal wake-up time, whether you sleep well and the time at your current location and your destination, you can obtain a customized set of recommendations.

I put the jet-lag advisor to a test in May on a trip from Los Angeles to London. The overnight portion of my journey was in business class from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to Stansted Airport outside London.


The survey found, not surprisingly, that travelers get more sleep in the front of the plane than in the back. Whether that is because of the relative comfort of first and business class or because of longer flying experience is difficult to know.

Idzikowski does not recommend trying to create “artificial” sleep on the plane by drinking or taking sleeping pills.

I slept probably five hours. After close to 1 million miles in the air, I have little difficulty sleeping on planes. I will never forget the woman I woke up next to after a long flight in business class who turned to me and said, “My, you’re quite a good plane sleeper.”

I arrived at my hotel with just enough time for a shower and a short nap before heading off to my first appointment.

Normally I would hit the ground running and try to stay awake until my normal bedtime on the first day. My little nap was intuitively correct, Idzikowski said.

“Aim to get that nap if possible before the first meeting,” he said.

The next day, my first full day in London, the jet-lag advisor recommended that I “avoid light between 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.” This was not a problem, as my first appointment was not until 1 p.m. I set my alarm clock for 11:30 and slept fairly solidly through the night until it went off. The first thing I did was throw open the blinds on a lovely London spring day.


Being out in full sunlight is not crucial to the success of the jet-lag advisor. Simply being exposed to light will suffice, Idzikowski said. He noted that the ganglion cells in the eye react to “blue” light, such as that of the sky, and are directly linked to the body’s biological clock. They are the key to resetting the clock to a new time zone.

I had a full and productive day, a late night and a reasonable sleep. The Day 2 recommendation for me was to avoid light from 4 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. -- which I did in my sleep -- and to seek light between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. -- which turned out to be a bit optimistic.

Nonetheless, I did crawl out of bed about 8:30 and throw open the curtains.

Did it work for me? It’s hard to know, given that I didn’t manage to get Day 2 right. But I did feel pretty well adjusted for the next two days I was there.

Idzikowski says his program can cut the normal amount of time required to adjust to a new time zone from 1 to 1 1/2 days per hour of difference in time (eight days in the case of London) to just two days total. Strict adherence to the schedule, he said, is not as important as an awareness of the times you should try to avoid any demanding situations.

“It’s a question of scheduling,” he said, “when one isn’t at one’s worst.”

Still, I think I might just try a massage next time.


James Gilden can be reached at