Jet lag can take some enjoyment out of the first few days of a long-planned vacation, and make you feel like you need another vacation to recover when you arrive back home. A few tips on how to minimize jet lag can help make the most of your time whether you’re crossing a country or an ocean. Read on for some helpful tips to minimize jet lag before departure, on board the plane and after you arrive, to maximize your vacation fun!
What is jet lag?
Deep within your brain is something called the Suprachiasmatic nucleus or SNC. This is the part of your brain that governs your circadian rhythm. Circadian means around (circa) the day (diem). If you were sequestered in a dark cave, you would sleep about 8 hours and be awake for about 16. Jet lag is when the external cues (mainly light exposure) and your circadian rhythm are out of sync. This happens when changing time zones or when changing sleep habits (like going to bed later and sleeping in later on weekends—known as social jet lag).
Another system at play is homeostasis. Homeostasis is the push and pull of sleep and wakefulness and is your body’s attempt to balance the two. After you get adequate sleep, your wakefulness drive increases. The longer you stay awake, the more your sleep drive increases. For example, if you travel from the US to Europe and do not get much sleep on the flight over, the urge to sleep can become overpowering at about 3pm. This is partly because you have been awake so long, increasing the sleep drive, and in part because your body’s internal clock is telling you it is midnight.
The combination of these two systems helps to govern our sleep and wakefulness cycles.
Melatonin, or the sleep hormone, is released by the pineal gland. It helps to ready the body for sleep and set our circadian rhythm. Production peaks between 9pm and 11pm and then declines as morning approaches. Cortisol starts to climb in the morning and declines later in the day, the opposite cycle to melatonin. It helps with wakefulness and gets us ready and energized for the day. What you do not want is higher cortisol when you need higher melatonin, e.g. right before you go to bed.
How to minimize jet lag
What are some strategies to deal with the double whammies of sleep deprivation and travel fatigue following a long fight and changing times zones?
Healthy sleep habits
It is important to get adequate sleep prior to travel, not always easy if you are trying to wrap up work and other commitments. However, having healthy sleep habits as a general practice can go a long way towards better sleep habits during travel.
During the week prior, it can be helpful to shift your bedtime and your get-up time a bit earlier if you are traveling east (e.g. from the US to Europe). If you are traveling west, it is generally easier to adjust, but you can go to bed a bit later, especially if you are crossing a lot of time zones.
Sleeping on airplanes is something that I have always struggled with. Try getting comfortable by using earplugs, eyeshades and pillows.
Staying hydrated is critically important as well.
Avoid being overly stimulated or aroused if you cannot sleep. I listen to books on tape (stories that are not too exciting). This way I can keep my eyes covered and stay relaxed.
Light exposure, exercise, use of caffeine, diet and melatonin are a number of helpful strategies.
Exposure to outside light (even if it is cloudy) first thing in the morning can go a long ways towards resetting that internal clock. Dimming the lights later in the day an hour or so before bed is also important. Light exposure suppresses melatonin production and stimulates cortisol production. In particular, avoid screens (TV, iPhones, computers, etc.) as these will suppress melatonin (by 30-70%).
I am not a big fan of constantly supplementing with melatonin, but judicious use may help minimize jet lag. The night before you travel, take a low dose (0.5 to 1.5 mg). Then take 3-5 mg the first couple of nights prior to bedtime (more is not better). However, there are a number of challenges with taking a melatonin pill. Firstly, what is on the label may not be what is actually in the pill; actual amounts can vary widely. There is also a small potential for it to be contaminated. So, try to find a brand that you can trust. The other problem is that when taken in a pill form, its half-life is relatively short (around 45 min), so it might help with falling asleep, but may not help to keep you asleep.
As an alternative, many plant foods contain melatonin. Melatonin in this form is healthy and lasts longer in our systems. Levels will peak 90-120 min after ingestion. Melatonin levels found in food, however, can vary quite a bit, depending on where they are grown, how much light exposure they receive, and so on.
Foods that are particularly high in melatonin:
- goji berries (you can find goji powder if you want to travel with that)
- tart cherries
- black rice
The good news is that these foods also contain antioxidants, (melatonin also acts as an antioxidant) which can help to quench oxidative stress and reduce inflammation. Air travel exaggerates oxidative stress due to higher levels of radiation and lack of sleep. Another bonus is that these foods also contain fiber, which can help to regulate bowel movements, something also negatively impacted by travel.
Eating a high fiber diet (note: fiber only comes from plant foods) such as beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables is also good for gut health. One study found that those who ate more fiber prior to a trip were less likely to experience traveler’s diarrhea. Fiber and resistant starch (as found in potatoes and beans) is what our bacteria thrive on. Unfortunately, 97% of Americans are fiber deficient. A good goal is around 40-50 grams of fiber per day; the average is around 12 grams per day. Fiber intake in Europe is slightly higher, but still inadequate.
Another helpful hint is to eat larger meals earlier in the day and reduce caloric intake later in the day. Eating more calories earlier can help to reset that clock. Eating lighter later in the day is also better for sleep and sleep quality. Guts also have their own circadian rhythm, and are connected to our internal circadian rhythm in ways we do not fully understand. Nevertheless, having a healthy gut can help with sleep, and good sleep and eating habits can keep your gut healthy!
Judicious use of caffeine can also help, but only use it early in the morning at your destination. The half-life of caffeine is 6-10 hours, which means that 6-10 hours later you still have 50% of it in your system. Another 6-10 hours later, you have 25% in your system. Hence, a small amount (a cup of coffee) is as much as you probably want to take. Otherwise, you can have chronic levels of caffeine in your system, which is not good for sleep.
Finally, get out and get some exercise. Exercise, especially outdoors, helps with sleep quality and quantity. However, if you are the adventurous traveler then chances are you are getting lots of exercise!
For more on sleep and ways to improve your sleep download the paper “The Care and Feeding of the Leader’s Sleep”.
How can I minimize jet lag before I travel?
To minimize jet lag before you travel:
- have healthy sleep habits before traveling.
- shift your bedtime. If traveling east, get up a bit earlier. Read more from this post for how to reduce jet lag on the plane.
What foods can help minimize jet lag?
Many plant foods naturally contain melatonin and can help minimize jet lag as part of a good diet. Foods that are particularly high in melatonin:
• goji berries (you can find goji powder if you want to travel with that)
• tart cherries
• black rice
These foods also contain antioxidants, (melatonin also acts as an antioxidant) which can help to quench oxidative stress and reduce inflammation. Air travel exaggerates oxidative stress due to higher levels of radiation and lack of sleep. Another bonus is that these foods also contain fiber, which can help to regulate bowel movements, something also negatively impacted by travel.
How can I minimize jet lag while on a flight?
- try to sleep, get as comfortable as you can.
- if you cannot sleep, keep your eyes covered and relax with music or audio books.
How do you get rid of jet lag?
Jet lag can negatively impact a holiday but can be managed.
Useful tips include:
• Exposure to outside light (even if it is cloudy) first thing in the morning can help reset your internal clock.
• Avoid screens (TV, iPhones, computers, etc.) as these will suppress melatonin (by 30-70%).
• Consider small amounts of melatonin in pill form.
• Eat foods that are naturally high in melatonin.
• Eat larger meals earlier in the day and reduce caloric intake later in the day.
• Judicious use of caffeine can also help, but only use it early in the morning at your destination.
• Exercise, especially outdoors, helps with sleep quality and quantity.