New pill to tackle jet lag

A world first to beat the long haul blues

A pill that helps travellers to stay awake by stimulating the central nervous system could tackle jet lag.

Jet lag is a common condition that usually occurs only when flying long distances. As the body crosses different time zones, its internal biological clock becomes disrupted. This is the mechanism that tells you when to sleep and when to wake up.

The drug, called Nuvigil, is licensed in some countries, such as the U.S., to help shift-workers keep alert through the night. It works by stimulating activity in the central nervous system – in other words, the brain and spinal cord.

Now the results of a new clinical trial suggest it could also be beneficial for passengers coping with the exhausting effects of long-distance flights. Tests on more than 400 volunteers who flew from the U.S. to France showed those who took one pill shortly before boarding the plane were considerably less drowsy and more alert on arrival than those who did not.

The U.S. company that makes the drug is applying for permission to market it as the world’s first jet lag pill. If successful, it could be on sale in the U.S. and Europe by the end of this year or early 2010.

However, some reported side-effects included headaches, anxiety, nausea and heart palpitations. Sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, from Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, said he was concerned the drug would help to medicalise a normal reaction to time change.

‘Jet lag is not an illness, it’s simply a consequence of long-distance travel,’ he said. ‘You get jet lag because it’s light or dark when, as far as your body is concerned, it should not be. Now it seems it is being treated as a reason to take medicine.

‘I can understand someone on a business trip wanting to feel their best when they arrive. But you could probably get the same effect by drinking coffee or going out in daylight. It takes only four minutes of exposure to sunlight to tell your body clock that it’s daytime.’

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