Jet lag can put a real damper on an otherwise exciting trip. Depending on the amount of time zones you're traversing, it can take days or even a week for your body's natural rhythm to readjust to a new sleep schedule. To understand how to combat jet lag, it's important to know what it is. Jet lag, also known as circadian dyssynchrony, is the phenomenon that occurs when a person's internal body clock becomes out of sync with the environment they are currently in. Some of the symptoms of jet lag include disturbed sleep patterns, mental fog, physical fatigue, and even headaches. Advice abounds on how to combat jet lag, but which remedies actually work?
Correctly Time Your Light Exposure
Our circadian rhythm is dependent on light, so it makes sense that light can be used to help adjust to a new time zone. Incorporating light exposure when shifting your sleep schedule can help speed up the process and lessen the adverse effects of the time change.
Studies show that recovery takes longer after flying east. Getting more morning light exposure will help ease this transition. Conversely, our bodies are better able to handle travel that extends our day. Exposure to light in the evening will help you make that adjustment.
If it's not possible to have exposure to sunlight, light therapy lamps are a workable solution. Light therapy lamps, once very large and expensive, can now be found in compact desktop options that are lightweight and affordable.
A study out of Stanford conducted by Jamie Zieter, Ph.D., found that flashing light can increase the benefit of light therapy when compared to continuous light, even with eyes closed. He explained: "If you are flying to New York tomorrow [from California], tonight you use the light. If you normally wake up at 8 a.m., you set the flashing light to go off at 5 a.m. When you get to New York, your biological system is already in the process of shifting to East Coast time."
Melatonin is a hormone that occurs naturally in your body and helps you regulate sleep patterns. Production of melatonin goes down when it's light out, and goes up when it's dark out. Many people take over the counter melatonin tablets as a sleep aid because they are generally safe and do not cause issues with dependency.
If you take melatonin 30 minutes before the time you need to be asleep in your new location before you go, your body will start to adjust so that the transition is easier when you arrive.
Exercise at Strategic Times
Exercising gets blood pumping, which can make your body more alert and help ease the symptoms of fatigue and brain fog. New research now suggests it also plays a role in regulating the body's circadian rhythm, so it's important to be aware of when you exercise.
In a study published in the Journal of Physiology, researcher Shawn D. Youngstedt explained, "Exercise has been known to cause changes to our body clock. We were able to clearly show in this study when exercise delays the body clock and when it advances it." The study concluded that exercising earlier in the day shifted participant's circadian rhythm earlier, and exercising after 7 p.m. shifted the body clock backward.
Use Caffeine With Care
It's common knowledge that caffeine helps wake us up, but new studies are beginning to uncover that caffeine does more than just act as a stimulant. It also confuses the body's circadian rhythm. Research by the Medical Research Council in Cambridge and the University of Colorado shows that caffeine delays the release of melatonin in the body by up to 45 minutes when a double shot of espresso is taken before bed.
Dr. John O'Neill, one of the lead researchers at the MRC Laboratory, said, "Not only do these results reinforce the common advice to avoid caffeine in the evening, but they also raise the intriguing possibility that caffeine may be useful for resetting the circadian clock to treat jet lag induced by international time zone travel."
Professor Kenneth Wright, of the University of Colorado's Department of Integrative Physiology, also stated: "Our findings suggest that if you take caffeine at the wrong time, it could make your jet lag on an eastward trip worse." There's that eastward travel again. So while it may be tempting to drink a lot of coffee to wake up after a long flight, make sure you're being mindful of the time.