What Is Jet Lag?
A variety of physiological processes are governed by the body’s circadian rhythm. This is the 24-hour cycle that drives when we wake up and fall asleep through an interaction of external factors and internal biochemical signals. Traveling across time zones interferes with this body clock, disrupting the sleep cycle, not to mention other systems. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to accelerate the adjustment process.
Exposure to Light
The circadian rhythm evolved with the Earth’s 24-hour cycle of light and dark, so of all the factors involved in sleeping patterns, the most dominant influence is light. The more quickly you align with daytime and nighttime in the local time zone, the better. In the morning, get as much natural light as possible, whereas in the late afternoon, avoid light to send your body the signal to start winding down. To optimize your light exposure, the free smartphone app Entrain gives recommended schedules for light stimulus. You can also buy devices ranging from light boxes to sleep glasses to help your body readjust.
Adjusting Sleep Patterns
A key mechanism in falling asleep is the body’s secretion of the hormone melatonin. Normally, the primary cue for this is darkness. But in a new time zone, it takes time for melatonin production to adjust. Studies have shown that melatonin supplements can be effective aids for getting to sleep while the body clock realigns. The online planner Jet Lag Rooster allows you to enter your trip details and get a personalized plan with the ideal times to sleep, to get light exposure and to take melatonin.
Timing Your Meals
Eating also influences the body clock. For some people, fasting during a flight appears to help the body clock reset more quickly on arrival. This involves having your last meal before a flight and then avoiding food on the plane, waiting to eat until the first meal time in your destination.
On the Flight
- Try to book a flight that will be optimal for your plans. For example, a night flight if you need to sleep on the plane and be ready for work the following day, or a daytime flight that allows you to work and then get a good night’s sleep on arrival.
- On an overnight flight, aim to get 6 hours of sleep if you can: that’s enough to keep you going until nighttime at your destination. Ideally, give yourself at least half a day in your new surroundings before you tackle a meeting or presentation.
- During the flight, drink water (rather than caffeine or alcohol). If you want to sleep, avoid screen time (blue light suppresses melatonin production) and make use of an eye mask, neck pillow and ear plugs.
When You Land
- Priority number one is to adapt to the new time zone as soon as possible. Try to stay awake until about 10pm local time and get up no later than 9am, eating at local meal times.
- If you arrive in the daytime, exercise will help you stay awake, stimulate your circulation, oxygenate your system and release serotonin. Ideally, exercise outdoors to maximize your light exposure.
- If you arrive in the evening, a long hot shower or bath relaxes all your muscles and can be an excellent sleep aid.
- Keep in mind that what and when you eat can influence your body clock. Foods with a high glycemic index (i.e. carbs) promote sleepiness: these include white rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, etc. Cherries (which contain melatonin) and bananas (which have sleep-inducing minerals) are also good choices. Foods that increase alertness include those high in protein such as meat, eggs, fish and beans. Caffeine, of course, is a very effective stimulant, but note that it has a six hour half-life in your system. More generally, eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains will help your system recover and decrease fatigue.
- Some travelers swear by a variety of alternative methods for rejuvenating after a long flight. These include ‘earthing’ (i.e. going barefoot outdoors in a natural setting), floatation or isolation tanks, spas and massage, or cocktails of vitamins and probiotics. We say, whatever works!
Now you’re fully prepped to beat jet lag and perform at your best!