I’ve just returned from a long trip to Australia and currently suffering from the side effects of jet lag which is making it quite hard to get back into London life. Given how easy it is to now travel to the other side of the world, technology hasn’t quite caught up with how we can avoid jet lag when we travel through multiple time zones.
So you might ask what jet lag is? It’s also called desynchronosis or flight fatigue, and causes disruption to our internal body clocks, affecting our circadian rhythms. Side effects include fatigue, insomnia, lack of appetite, poor sleep quality and lack on concentration and memory issues. Jet lag usually improves after a few days – according to Dr. Smith L Johnston (head of NASA fatigue management team) it takes a full day to recover each time zone you travel through.
Humans and other mammals have a built in body clock with ‘body clock genes” called the suprachiasmatic nucleus[i]. These cells turn on and off with the patterns of day and night, and help regulate sleep, blood pressure, hunger and mood. One of the main signals which helps to manage this internal body clock is light, which means that our body clocks are synced to work with daylight each day.
Recent research in mice shows that jet lag is the effect of a braking system which stop the brain from responding to light[ii]. Normally, genes are activated to regulate our circadian rhythms even when we travel through time zones but a protein called SIK1 switched off these genes in jet lag, which regulated the body clock via daylight. This protein may be in place to stop us being affected by artificial light and disrupting our systems daily.
Our internal body block produces the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep, hormone production and temperature regulation. In jetlag, all of these are disrupted along with energy use and water excretion, all of which affect both physical and mental performance. Travelling east is harder than travelling west[iii], as it is harder to force yourself to sleep than it is to force yourself to stay awake.
So what can we do to prevent jet lag? There are some simple biohacks that frequent travelers use to ensure that they can make the most of travelling yet not suffer too many effects on the return home. These tips will help you to reduce stress to the body and the amount of time required to recover from jetlag.
Adjusting sleep schedule - Scientists at Rush University suggest that being prepared before travelling is the key to combatting jet lag[iv]. The research found that taking 0.5mg melatonin with using a light box to provide intermittent bright light brought people’s sleep schedule forward. Therefore, Eastman recommends taking melatonin for a few afternoons before travelling and using the lightbox for a few days if you are travelling east. If you are travelling west, it’s probably enough to use the lightbox in the evenings. I have just bought a Phillips Lumia light so will be testing this out for when I travel east next month. If you don’t have a light box or melatonin, just start going to bed an hour or so earlier each day for a few days before you travel.
Be well rested – I’m one of those travelers that tries to maximize every single minute before I leave to try to tick things off my to do list, which often leaves me up the whole night if I have an early flight or just catching a couple of hours sleep before I leave for the airport. Many people who travel frequently for work suggesting getting a good night of sleep before you fly, particularly if this involves an overnight flight and flying through several time zones.
Adjusting time – as soon as you board the flight, adjust your watch to your destination and use the destination time to plan your daily functions such as eating and sleeping. This may mean that you miss meal times so carry healthy snacks with you and avoid eating anything too heavy.
Stay hydrated – as our internal body clock affects water excretion, it’s important to stay hydrated whilst flying, particularly as the recirculating air is often dehydrating. Heather Poole, flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crash Pads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet’ say that ‘hydration is key’ for avoiding jet lag. Your body isn’t well prepared for another time zone if it is not hydrated. I also avoid caffeine and alcohol as both are stimulants and will disrupt sleep patterns, as well as dehydrate you.
Resting and napping – use the flight time to rest and nap to adjust to your destination wherever you can. If you are flying during daylight hours, use an eye mask to block out bright UV light as this will disrupt your sleep and your internal body clock.
Movement – move as much as you can on the flight – if you can get out of your seat, walk up and down the aisles. If you are seated, focus on specific joints as this will help blood circulation.
Noise cancelling headphones – I don’t actually have these but have heard from frequent travelers that a good pair of noise cancelling headphones can make the difference between an OK flight and a great flight. Not only does this actively cancel out the sound of the engine but also all the sounds around you. I haven’t found any studies demonstrating this but if Bose want to give me a pair, I am happy to try out some experiments.
On arrival to your destination
Stay awake until 10pm local time – however much you would like to sleep, try to stay awake until 10pm or an early local bedtime to ensure that you have a good night’s sleep and awake feeling rested. This will allow your internal body clock to start to readjust to daylight hours in the new destination, and therefore your hormones.
Exercise – if you arrive earlier in the day, some light exercise will help get your circulation moving and release endorphins which will help to keep you more awake and feel energized. Avoid exercising late in the evening.
Daylight – try to open the curtains or blinds as soon as you wake up and go outside as soon as you can. Natural daylight is a powerful stimulant for regulating the internal body clock.
Whilst most of the current medications available to frequent travelers for avoiding jet lag help people to sleep, newer medications help people to stay awake and alert. Wakefulness promoting agents such as armodafinil treat daytime sleepiness which is often part of jet lag. In the UK, melatonin is not available over the counter so I would suggest seeing a sleep or performance specialist doctor such as the team as the Centre of Human Health and Performance . They can also suggest medications to help you to sleep such as zolpidem.
I’ll be testing out the new things such as the noise cancelling headphones and using the light box before my next trip to East to Asia and will let you know how I get on. Do share any useful tips in the comments!