How do you manage your medication schedule when you travel across time zones?

My discussions with frequent travelers revealed that there are two schools of thought:

  1. Keep your watch set to your home time zone and continue on the same schedule.
  2. Immediately change your medication schedule to the new time zone.

According to Margie Wendland, a nurse at the Health Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, both theories are wrong.

“The human body doesn’t respond to clocks or time zones; it follows the sun. With medication,” she says, “it’s much more important to know how your body absorbs it rather than the time you normally take it.”

Medications taken at bedtime, for example, are probably absorbed better at that time because it is an extended period without food or drink, or perhaps because blood pressure tends to lower while sleeping. This means you should take the medication just before bedtime, regardless of what the clock says.

Medications taken with food should simply be taken when you feel like eating—not a particular time. By using a watch set to your home time zone, “lunchtime” at your new location could be 3:00 in the morning. Do you really want to get up at 3:00 am, look for something to eat, take your pill, and then try going back to sleep?

“Not only is that not practical, it makes things worse,” Wendland says. “Your body needs sleep to adjust itself. Disrupting your sleep will keep your circadian rhythms out of whack and you’ll need more time to recover.”

Lee Ann Goins, RPh, a pharmacist at Walgreen’s in Beckley, West Virginia, confirmed Wendland’s recommendations.

“I never advise patients to try to ‘re-create’ their home time zone in a different location. It is much more important that patient respond to the day-night pattern, wherever they are. This is the optimal situation for their medication to be the most effective.”

Goins also pointed out that rather thinking in terms of “old time zone and new time zone,” patients should be thinking about how many doses they take in a 24-hour cycle. For example, if you travel from the U.S. to Paris, it’s possible that during the first day’s adjustment phase, you will have some doses of medication that are taken closer together than they usually are, or farther apart than they usually are. Find out if there would be any side effects by taking the medication in either of these situations. You may need to skip a dose and follow up the next day, or take an extra dose at some point.

Both Wendland and Goins mentioned the importance of talking to your pharmacist as well as your doctor about the effects of international travel on your drug regimen. Says Wendland, “Different health care professionals know different parts of the picture. Pharmacists know drugs. Doctors know the patient’s conditions and health history. That information needs to be put together to provide the best possible guidance for the patient.”

While this article is not intended to substitute as medical advice, I believe most travelers will discover that taking medications earlier or later than normal to accommodate different time zones will not pose any problems.

For more articles by Kathy Goins, visit her website www.wallstreetiswaiting.com

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