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Jet lag: crossing time zones poses safety risks.

Air travelers can't seem to escape the inevitable jet lag that accompanies crossing time zones, but scientific research shows that planning may yield some relief.

The misalignment of the body's 24-hour clock, also known as circadian desynchronosis, is caused by quickly traveling across multiple time zones. Whether eastbound or westbound, air travel causes a "phase shift" in our day. When you fly west, you are delaying bedtime; flying east shortens the day and makes bedtime earlier. Most travelers find it more difficult to adapt to eastbound travel. Younger travelers and "night owls" tend to adapt faster.

Just as blooming flowers react to daylight, people wake and sleep with cues from the sun. A group of brain cells near the optic nerves commonly referred to as our "master clock" receives light signals that trigger the release of biochemicals, including melatonin, that regulate a variety of bodily functions.

When jet lag occurs, symptoms may include fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, gastrointestinal problems, muscle soreness and, in women, menstrual problems. Over the long term, research has shown, frequent jet travel can pose more serious health hazards including blood clots, elevated blood pressure and diabetes.

Jet Lag and Diplomats

For a diplomat, jet lag can pose problems beyond biological effects. In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles arrived in Washington after a trip to Cairo and learned that the Egyptian government had purchased a large quantity of Russian arms. He promptly canceled the newly signed agreement to finance the Aswan Dam project. The Suez Crisis followed, involving world powers. Secretary Dulles later said that had he not been so weary from jet lag he might have taken a more conciliatory stance with the Egyptians.

While few of us will affect world events under the influence of jet lag, many are exposed to acute safety risks after crossing multiple time zones.

Of particular concern is what scientists call "micro-sleep episodes" that can last from seconds to minutes. Nodding off at a meeting or meal can be embarrassing; the ramifications are much more serious if it happens while driving, especially on unfamiliar roads.

The occupational hazards posed by fatigue, dulled reflexes and loss of concentration resulting from jet lag have been well documented by the National Transportation Safety Board; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Department of State's Safety, Health and Environmental Management Office; and others. Operators of vehicles, machinery, tools, ladders and complex equipment, as well as those working in potentially hazardous areas, may be especially at risk until fully rested and adjusted to their new time zone.

Beating Jet Lag

Travelers have used anecdotal remedies, homeopathic products, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, alcohol and gadgets to try to beat jet lag. Most products that purport to help reset your body clock have little scientific basis and lack valid scientific testing. Most remedies, sleep aids and stimulants only treat the symptoms of jet lag, not the cause.

One should seek medical advice, especially for pre-existing medical conditions, prior to using programs, dietary supplements or drugs as part of a jet lag program. Melatonin, used in some programs, is sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement, and is neither FDA-regulated nor approved for treatment of jet lag.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends maintaining a good diet, an exercise regimen and good sleep habits before any long-distance travel. Also consider these steps:

* When possible, choose non-stop flights with daytime arrival to allow for maximum sunlight exposure.

* Change your watch to destination time immediately after take-off, then sleep or stay awake based on that time.

* Eat lightly and avoid alcohol and caffeine en route.

* Stay well hydrated.

* Exercise or walk around the cabin regularly.

Some Popular Programs to Deal with Jet Lag Include:

* The Argonne Jet Lag Diet, developed by the late Dr. Charles F. Ehret at the U.S. Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory, available at;

* "How To Travel The World Without Jet Lag," by Drs. Chmane East man and Helen Burgess, Rush University Medical Center (;

* CDC Health Travel Information for International Travel 2012; and

* British Airway Jet Lag Planner, a personalized planning program (

By Certified Industrial Hygienist Steven Jay Sherman, Office of Safety, Health and Environmental Management
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Title Annotation:Safety Scene
Author:Sherman, Steven Jay
Publication:State Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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