A person holding a child looking at an airplane at the airport.

We’ve all been there. You travel long-distance for a holiday homecoming or the trip of a lifetime, but then you arrive so exhausted that you sleep-walk through the first few days.

You don’t have to, says Kendrick Watkins, MD, family medicine doctor with Memorial Hermann Medical Group in Kingwood. Watkins shares the 411 on what causes jet lag—and how to conquer it.

Q. Why do we get jet lag?

A. Your internal body clock, AKA your circadian rhythm, affects temperature, blood pressure and hormones. “When you cross multiple time zones—generally four or more—your internal clock gets out of sync,” Dr. Watkins says.

As a result, you may find it hard to awaken or fall asleep according to your new schedule.

“You also may feel groggy or less energetic and have trouble thinking or concentrating. Some people get constipated,” Dr. Watkins says.

Q. Do kids get jet lag, and how can you help them adjust?

A. “Most newborns haven’t set their internal clock, so jet lag doesn’t affect them as much,” Dr. Watkins says. “Time changes are harder for children ages 2 to 5 ,” he says. “They get used to sleeping through the night and take naps at set times.”

You can reduce jet lag in kids by adjusting their bedtime routine by a half-hour or hour three days prior to your trip—if they’ll allow you to.

By age six, most children no longer nap, and their circadian rhythm is similar to that of adults.

Is there a drug to lessen symptoms?

A. Over-the-counter supplements containing melatonin—a hormone your brain’s pineal gland produces—can help with symptoms.

Melatonin levels rise in the evening, hastening and prolonging sleep, and then fall before you awake. Such pills can help reset body clocks by boosting melatonin before bedtime in your new time zone.

Ask your doctor or pediatrician if it’s safe to take melatonin.

“Some medications can interact with the liver, to delay or increase the breakdown of melatonin,” says Dr. Watkins.

Q. How long does it take to get over jet lag?

A. “Your recovery time is based on the number of time zones you’ve traversed,” Dr. Watkins says.

Typically, you’ll need three to five days to reset fully after crossing four or five time zones, and longer if you’ve flown over eight, nine or more.

Q. Can jet lag get worse depending on traveling east or west?

A. “Jet lag can be more severe for those travelling eastward versus westward,” Dr. Watkins says.

The body finds it easier to delay sleep than waking up earlier. “Until your body adjusts, you can use caffeinated beverages if you’re having trouble staying alert or awake,” he says.

Q. How can you avoid or shorten jet lag?

A. Three days before departing, adjust bedtime and awakening times for you and your children.

You also might want to avoid lights in the evening and then expose yourself to bright lights for two to three hours upon awakening so you get accustomed to earlier sunlight.

If you will travel westward, move bedtime and awakening later by 30 minutes to an hour, and adjust light and dark accordingly. If you plan to travel in an easterly direction, move those events earlier by 30 minutes to an hour.

Get enough rest before your trip and stay well hydrated to lower your chances of jet lag.

Once you arrive, “it’s easier to stay in your home time zone if you’re staying three days or less,” Dr. Watkins says. “If you’re staying longer, change to the new schedule as soon as possible.”

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