20/20: Learn to Fight Jet Lag

Dec. 1, 2000 -- You’ve planned a trip to Paris and can’t wait to get to the City of Lights. When you arrive, it’s early morning in Paris, but your body feels like it’s midnight back home.While you desperately want to check out the Eiffel Tower, all you can think of is going to sleep. You’ve become a victim of jet lag.

If you’ve ever flown across time zones there’s a strong chance you’ve suffered from jet lag. The condition is fundamentally a brain problem that occurs when a person crosses time zones suddenly, which throws the brain’s clock out of synch. ABCNEWS’ Dr. Tim Johnson looked at the proliferation of jet-lag cures on the market and reports on safe, cheap and effective remedies to fight the condition on 20/20 this evening.

The Use of LightVeteran long-distance traveler Les Adams tells Johnson he found his solution by applying the findings of a scientific study on jet lag tohis own travel routine. Adams says he was inspired by an article in the prestigious medical journal Science, in which researchers concluded that light behind the knees might be an effective way to treat jet lag. He went to his local hardware store and purchased a couple of mag lights that he uses to shine light on the back of his knees during flights.

Although Adams’ solution gets him a lot of attention during flights, the reasoning behind it may not be that farfetched. The theory is that light hits the blood vessels behind the knee, which kicks off a chemical process that resets the brain’s clock. And while scientists need more studies before they endorse Adams’ remedy, they do agree that the best way to reset the brain’s clock to adjust to a new time zone is with light.

“The solution to jet lag, the ultimate solution if you can do it, is total control of light and dark,” says sleep physiologist Dr. MartinMoore-Ede. He recommends the use of an anti-jet lag device that travelers can set to receive a dose of light shining in their eyes while they’re in flight.

“It doesn’t obscure vision at al l… it’s providing a glow of light … like [one gets] walking in a sunny day and lights coming down from above,” he says. “And that dose, precisely timed, is what resets the biological clock.

The actual timing of when to use light depends entirely on your itinerary — how many time zone changes, which direction, and the length of the stay. Moore-Ede’s company, Circadian Technologies, uses sophisticated computers to provide travelers with a customized schedulefor the use of light to fight jet lag.

If you’d like to incorporate light therapy into your travel planning, you can start by taking the Owl and Lark test on the right. Then, use the travel preparation tips on the additional feature on the right titled “Creating Your Jet Lag Strategy.”

Energy BoosterFor travelers who need to arrive at their destination ready for action, a jet-lag pill might be a good solution. The pill is actually an over-the-counter vitamin B supplement known as NADH and marketed as ENADA. NADH acts like a spark plug to create energy in cells that may translate into improved brain functions. Even though it is not a stimulant, it may affect a person’s alertness.

In his report, Johnson follows 11 passengers who tested the pill by taking part in a groundbreaking study — the first ever done on people with real-life jet lag.

The group flew the overnight red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. 20/20’s cameras were on board as the group experienced the typical stresses of overnight air travel — like dry air, cramped quarters and trying to catch some sleep.

Dr. Gary Kay of Georgetown University is the study’s lead investigator and an expert on how medications affect the brain. Upon their arrival in Washington, Kay gave half the group the jet lag pill he is testing. The other half got a placebo sugar pill.

Peggy Sciascia was one of the testers who got the real pill and was pleased with how well she felt after taking it.

“I’d been suffering the whole trip and after we did the study … I feel great. I feel wonderful. I feel alert,” she told 20/20.

In fact, Sciascia and the other NADH subjects did better on certain thinking tests when compared to the placebo subjects. Through tests, the scientists found the team’s memory improved and they were better at performing two tasks at the same time.

Still, Kay stresses that NADH is primarily for brainpower, not a magic pill for all jet-lag problems. “You don’t take this pill and say whoa,” he says. “It is not a stimulant … It is not a mood elevator.”

The pill also does not interfere with sleep. A welcome piece of news for the 11 test takers, especially when it was time to call it a day.