Jet Lag, And How To Cure It

Beating Jet Lag

Jet lag is a lifestyle problem.  We can fly anywhere, anytime, in any direction.  Yet such freedom comes at a price.

Jet lag is stressful.  It is a chronic disruption in the body’s 24-hour circadian rhythm that cannot be ignored.  It comes in the form of fatigue, disorientation, headaches, insomnia, lack of motivation, lack of energy and sleep deprivation.  It can exacerbate ill health, contribute to constipation, dry skin, hormonal problems, burn out and adrenal fatigue.  Flight crew name symptoms of clumsiness, hormonal issues, weight problems, fatigue, sleep quality, forgetfulness and stress.  Jet lag is extremely punishing on the body. 

 What is jet lag

Jet lag is a mismatch between internal and external clocks.  Our internal clock is known as the circadian rhythms.  The area in the brain charged with keeping time is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN).  It has about 20,000 neurons who’s job it is to take cues from light in the environment to keep time.  This alignment is determined by factors such as exercise, melatonin and light.  The SCN is a control center and aims to keep everything in sync.  Bright light exposure is the best way to create an advance or delay in circadian rhythms.  Light in the early morning makes you wake up earlier, whereas light at night makes you wake up later.  As well as light input, the SCN takes cues from your genes - you actually keep time all over the body. 

Your body clock wants to run like a Swiss watch.  Every single cell in your body, from hair tissue to your kidney cells, keeps its own internal clock.  You literally have trillions of internal clocks in your body. These rhythms anticipate waking and sleeping, controlling our hunger, mood, alertness, and blood pressure.  It is these clocks that become disrupted and out of sync with air travel.  Our internal clocks actually work to 24.5 hours a day, and this is why it is easier to travel west than east, as it is easier to travel in a direction that extends the day rather than shortening it. 

Our clock genes are controlled by melatonin (more below), your sleep hormone.  By flying to a different time zone, similarly working a night shift, jet lag results in the desynchronisation between external environment cues and your internal clock cellular cues.  They simply don’t match up.

Other factors worsen your jet lag, including your stress levels and the cabin environment.

Stress

The majority of us find travelling stressful.  We rarely adjust our sleep behavior the week prior to a long haul.  If anything we are busy cramming in all we can before our trip.  By the time we get to the airport we have fought time, traffic, and endless cues through check in and security.  Unrested, out of sync, in a state of low level chronic stress – we board a plane.   

In flight, your body is under stress by the fact you appear to be travelling slowly but are in fact going very fast across time zones.  The California institute for human science noted in their research that the human body is checking its reference to the earth every 90 seconds.  No wonder we experience disorientation with jet lag.

The cabin

The cabin environment is also a huge stressor.  Long haul stewardesses were found to have higher saliva cortisol levels than short haul.  Cortisol is your fight and flight hormone, raised in times of stress.  Continuous raised cortisol leads to a state of poor immunity, ill health and exhaustion.

The cabin is pressured to the altitude of a small mountain at 8,000 ft.  Air is continuously bled off the engines and fed back into the cabin as dry air.  This lack of moisture in the cabin leads to an increase in dehydration, static and positive ions in the cabin.  All of these create enormous stress on the body, as we prefer humidity, less static and negative ions.  In addition, the engines generate a higher decibel noise, which is stressful to the central nervous system.  

Such an environment fosters a disordered sense of time and place.  The body has to work harder to function normally in an environment of low oxygen content, low air pressure and hypobaric in nature.  If you are stressed or unwell by the time you reach the airport, it is even worse for you. 

How to manage jet lag

There is no single magic bullet cure for jet lag.  However, by combining proven strategies regarding light exposure, sleep, exercise and meal times, we can reduce the effects of jet lag.   By working with all these strategies we are in effect resetting, or speeding up, our multiple internal clocks to the new time zone.

By focusing on light exposure, meal timings, sleep adjustment and maybe a little help from supplements, you can really feel some benefit in reducing jet lag symptoms.

Food, fasting and hydration

Plane food is overly acidic, dehydrating and wholly processed and unhealthy.  If light is the biggest influencer on your body clock, the timing of our food has the second biggest impact. 

In 2002 researchers put fasting to the test and found that fasting 16 hours before you touch down at your destination can help your body regulate its circadian rhythms quicker.  Those who fasted were 7.5 times less likely to feel the effects of jet lag. 

By fasting, we are essentially stopping the clock.  Life hackers from presidents to elite sports people have abstained and then feasted on arrival to minimize jet lag with success.  The 2002 study demonstrated that on the day of travel you eat a normal yet healthy breakfast and lunch, staying hydrated but do not eat during the flight.  On arrival, eat a nutritious meal full of protein, healthy fats and plenty of vegetables.

If you feel you cannot fast, then eat light, healthy and keep to 2 meals not 3 on a long haul.

You still need to drink water, and plenty of it.  Water does not adjust the clock, calories do.  Yet, recent news suggests that the dirty little secret is the water is pretty dirty on planes, despite being regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.  How often an airline must test the water, clean and flush its tanks is less regulated which suggests you don’t know the cleanliness of the water you are drinking on board.   So in this scenario, bottled water perhaps is the only other option.

You should also avoid alcohol and caffeine as these two substances will exacerbate dehydration and circadian rhythm disruption.

Sleep

Science shows adjusting your sleep an hour a day 3-5 days before flying will help you adjust more quickly to your destination time zone.  www.jetlagrooster.com is an easy online tool to help you do this.  A regular west bound London, UK to Los Angeles, US flight (depart 4pm, arrive 7pm same day) suggests 3 days out from the flight you start sleeping/waking an hour later each day.

I am not one to drop off and sleep for hours, especially sitting up.  Nor do I take sleeping aids.  However I do manage short sleep cycles 45-90 minutes and allowing these to happen (by turning off the in flight entertainment, abstaining from alcohol and caffeine and focusing on shut eye), really helps how I feel on arrival.  Feeling rested and minimizing jet lag is more important than that second movie!  Try an eye mask and ear plugs to help with this.

Exercise

Exercise can help overcome travel fatigue.  When flying to LA (westward), on waking the next morning I find I’m well up for a gentle run in the sun.   This burst of sunlight and exercise really accelerates body clock adjustment.  Research shows that you should train in your destination the same time as if you were at home, so for me, that is morning.   

During the flight, get up, move and walk around, and stretch, as much as is possible.  This is why an aisle seat is best if in economy and premium.

Get Earthed

In the knowledge we are continually checking our reference to earth every 90 seconds, you would do yourself a big favor in putting bare feet in the grass (or sand) on arrival at your destination.  The earth gives off negative ions, this will help balance the positive ions from the cabin.

Supplements

Melatonin is one of the most widely known/used cures for jet lag.  It is the key hormone in the sleep wake cycle and is a popular jet lag remedy.  However the dosing and timing is critical; for example, it is suggested you should only start taking it on arrival.  It also carries some health concerns so it is important you consult with a doctor before taking this supplement for jet lag.  

I personally do not supplement with melantonin as I feel that any benefit in the short term will be countered in the long term. Hormones work in concert with each other and supplementing with one risks affecting the entire system. 

Pycnogenol is an extract from the bark of French pine trees.  An Italian study showed a reduction in time of jet lag symptoms in those who took the supplement.  It is often found in many airport available jet lag remedies.

My personal favorite supplement for travel is one that NASA are using on their employees for travelling long haul and to support health in their astronauts.  It’s a substance called NADH, nicotinadmide adenine dinucleotide.  NADH increases cellular production of ATP (energy) and facilitates dopamine synthesis, hence its interest with respect to jet lag.  In studies, individuals who took NADH performed better in cognitive tests, overall performance and reported less sleepiness with no adverse side effects.

Recovery

Recovery from jet lag is not an exact science.  On average we can adjust 1 hour per day for every time zone crossed, but this can be a little more if you are flying east.

By focusing on light exposure, meal timings, sleep adjustment and maybe a little help from supplements, you can really feel some benefit in reducing jet lag symptoms.

For all Road Warriors out there, here’s a quick summary of how to wave goodbye to Jet Lag.

-           Adjust your sleep by using www.jetlagrooster.com prior to flying

-           Fast for 16 hours during the flight; prior and after flight eat to normal meal times.

-           Hydrate

-           Expose yourself to light, using the above tool but also on arrival at your destination and the next morning.

-           Exercise, outside if possible, at the same time you would at home.

-           Ground yourself, get earthed, to get some negative ions.

I hope you enjoy your flight.

 

Deborah McTaggart practices nutrition at Barnes Chiropractic Clinic, 43 Barnes High Street, SW13, London.  Please contact here.  Specialty is Resilience for High Energy Demand, Stress, Travel & Sport through Nutrition, Genetics, Lifestyle & Practical Resilience strategies.