Anyone who has done a bit of traveling has likely experienced the woes of jet lag. It’s not just exhausting; it can also lead to mood imbalances, low libido, and digestive disturbances. It can even make you lose your appetite. The last thing we want is to be feeling unwell while we are supposed to be having a great time in a new place! (1)
As with any other problem, before we can find a solution, we must define the problem. Let’s take a quick look at exactly what jet lag is, so that we can form an avoidance strategy to bypass this traveling drawback.
What is Jet Lag?
Air travel across time zones is the main culprit of jet lag. The experience of jet lag includes difficulty falling and staying asleep, daytime drowsiness, reduced awareness, loss of focus, diminished performance, lethargy, irritability, glum mood and even gastrointestinal trouble. (2, 3, 4, 5)
These frustrations do not affect just traveling tourists, but professionals who travel for work, athletes and more. If left unaddressed over long periods of time, the short-term effects of jet lag can develop into more serious matters. Overall, for both temporary and continuing traveling satisfaction, there is a great necessity to prevent or at least minimize jet lag.
What Causes Jet Lag?
Jet lag is primarily caused by the transitory misalignment that occurs in the endogenous circadian clock, particularly the dorsomedial region of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which governs the body’s sleep/wake cycle. Accordingly, the symptoms of jet lag are actually just signs that our internal clock is off. As we re-tune our rhythms back to their “factory settings,” the symptoms of jet lag begin to dissolve.
When we travel, let’s say from the East Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast, we gain 3 hours of daylight. The common travelers language for this is that the West Coast is ahead of the East Coast. Thus, when you arrive, your phone sets the time ahead; however, the circadian clock has to yet to be reset as well.
The technical term for this is called phase advance. For example, if you fly West a few time zones and usually get to sleep by 10 p.m. your body will really be going to sleep at 1 a.m. – according to your internal clock, which is still on Eastern time.
This explains a lot of the drowsiness and fatigue one can experience when jet lagged when traveling “back in time.” The body was ready for sleep 3 hours ago, but the environment has a different plan.
In order to feel better and avoid this daytime sleepiness, your internal clock must phase advance in order to readjust with your new sleep schedule.
What’s the secret to beating jet lag?
Considering that the primary cause of jet lag is rooted in a disturbance of circadian rhythm, the solution is going to be looking at ways to tweak and reset our internal clocks. There are a few ways we can do this. Let’s take a look:
1. Light manipulation: Because light plays a significant role in how our circadian rhythm is aligned, we can use light manipulation to cause phase shifts in our internal clock, which will help lessen or eliminate the symptoms of jet lag.
Here’s the general rule: light – sunlight in particular – triggers the release of cortisol and inhibits melatonin production. Cortisol gives us energy and the feeling of being awake, while melatonin is a sleep hormone that causes drowsiness. The trick for resetting our internal clock rests in knowing whether to pursue light or avoid it, and also knowing when to do this.
You can seek light in two different ways; you can either go outside into natural sunlight or use a light box. If you need to avoid light, then you may want to stay inside, particularly in a dark room. Or, if you’re out and about, wear light-blocking glasses.
The last thing to know is when to seek light and when to avoid it. If you have jumped into a time zone that is “behind” your internal clock, such as the example of going from the East Coast to the West Coast and gaining three hours, then you will want to seek light and lower melatonin. In the opposite case, you would avoid light.
2. Melatonin: Because two main hormones, cortisol and melatonin, govern the circadian rhythm, we can find relief in temporary melatonin supplementation. Melatonin can be taken in the morning before a trip when time is gained, to help delay the internal circadian clock. In this situation, your best bet would be a time-release melatonin in the dose of 3 mg.
In the case where time is lost, taking melatonin upon arrival will help speed melatonin production, helping you to feel drowsy earlier. If you were arriving to the East Coast from the West Coast, the 3 hour difference might make it difficult for you to fall asleep, leading to jet lag the next day.
Try a 3 mg dose in a sublingual or liquid form to get sleepy immediately in this case. (6)
A Final Tip
Keep in mind that drugs made for jet lag only mask symptoms; they do not get to the root, resetting the clock. In many cases, people who fail to take precautions for preventing jet lag need to turn to over-the-counter drugs or naps as a last resort. In this case, only the symptoms are being treated, not the cause, which is the underlying internal misalignment. If not addressed, the symptoms will persist until the circadian clock is finally reset to its current time zone.
Give these tips a try and let me know how they work for you on your next trip!