Jet lag

Dr Jonathan Hare, The Creative Science Center, Sussex University.

pack of no jet lag pills

Long-haul flights are hard, especially if you cross many times zones. Going to South Africa from the UK is generally a 10 to 12 hour flight but as the local times are the same (or only an hour difference) its quite easy to adjust after the flight. UK to New Zealand is about a days worth of flying but is also 11 to 12 hour difference which is hard which ever route you happen to take. Many people feel that the jet lag going eastward is harder than experienced when having travelled westward. For example going to the USA from the UK does seem to be easier than coming back to the UK from the USA.

UK to NZ
I have flown from the UK to New Zealand three times now (via various routes) and each time have suffered quite bad jet lag, sometimes for up to 10 days. In the summer of 2005 I spent six weeks in Franz Josef filming the third Rough Science series for BBC and the Open University. I found the jet lag on this trip really hard. I was awaking at 2am (NZ time) every day for the first ten days. Even though I was tired my body would not go to sleep. I was being filmed so this was hard. After 10 days Kate gave me some Melatonin which seemed to get me on track to local time ... but after 10 days I was probably beginning to adjust anyway. In July 2011 I was invited to give a key note talk and workshops for the ChemEd 2011 conference In Palmerston North in the North Island of New Zealand. After the conference I had just over a week to travel around the South Island. In total I was away from the UK for about 16 days. I found I had the same problems with Jet lag as on the other New Zealand trips. I was awaking at about 2 or 4 am. I was wide 'awake' (despite being tired). One night the conference organiser gave me a sleeping pill to stop me waking so early. Although I did go into a very deep sleep I still awoke early.

On this trip I brought some Melatonin with me (which I had purchased on a trip to the USA). On the fourth night I tried it, and on various subsequent nights. On the nights I took the Melatonin I did seem to be able to get back to sleep all ok.

'No more jet lag' pills - homeopathic remedies
During this NZ trip I came across a set of pills called "No more Jet lag" claiming to help jet lag on flights longer than 7 hours. This is a homeopathic preparation of about 32 pills in a blister pack. The ingredients include arnica.

Diluted to the noise floor?
I must admit that my views about the so called 'science' of homeopathic treatments are negative. I think because of the extremely small amounts of active compound that are suggested to have such a profound effect. The pills they claim contain the active ingredient are in such tiny amounts that one would expect that at this level of concentration the pills would also contain an awful lot of other stuff (which doesn't get a mention). How can an active ingredient at such a low level of concentration do anything when its in its no more abundant than the other small amounts of impurities that must also be naturally there? However I thought I would lay aside the theoretical problems (which may well be due to my ignorance) and try the 'experiment' of taking the pills on the way home.

NZ to UK: 28 hour flight home
The pack suggests taking one pill on takeoff, one every two hours (every 4 hours is ok if you sleep a bit) and one on landing. My flight was in total ca. 28 hours: Auckland to Sydney to Dubai to London Gatwick (with a max of three hours stop over in each airport). I didn't sleep much on any of the flights, perhaps 2 to 3 hours max. So when I got home I was naturally tired but surprisingly not excessively so. On other trips my body clock would have been very mucked up but this time in the week after my return I found I was really very well. I was a bit tired on the first day of course and have gone to bed fairly early (ca. 9pm) for the first three days. However I have had none of the days of frustrating awake-all-night and sleepy-all-day twilight world days of other trips.

It's true that the long return home is westerly so generally better for jet lag (you 'gain' a day instead of 'losing' it) but I have never had such an easy transition or such an easy time of jet-lag. The melatonin pills helped me feel sleepy, helped me go to sleep and helped me get back to sleep if I awoke early. They seemed to be able to help sleep at, what the body feels, is a strange time which helped slowly get into the new time zone you now find yourself in. The 'no jet lag' pills seemed to stop that heavy jet-lag feeling (desperately trying to stay awake to fit into the new time zone) so in this sense they appeared to be better than melatonin. Could this be explained simply by the placebo effect? I will have to try the pills out again to make sure this was not just a fluke.

Keeping my 'negative hat' on r.e. homeopathic treatments - perhaps there is something therapeutic in the 'ritual' of regularly taking pills that you believe have some particular function . On my next long haul trip I will take a pack of small strong extra strong mints (or perhaps those small but intense licorice 'pill' like sweets) and use them in the same way / regime as the 'No Let Jag' pills suggest. As these are quite strong, one sweet is often enough for a while and so I wont be inclined to gobble the whole packet and ruin the experiment. It would be interesting to see if the ritual alone had the desired effect (I am not sure if this is quite the same as 'placebo').

JPH, these notes made July 2011 and May 2012


Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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