Making plans to travel to another state or country this summer? Researchers say that the anticipation of a vacation is almost as good as being on the vacation itself. However, our expectations can be deflated when we experience the effects of jet lag.
Jet lag is defined by the symptoms of irritability, insomnia, indigestion, including nausea, and general disorientation. This is a result of the body’s inner clock (circadian rhythm) being out of step with meal times, sunrise and sunset, and daily cycles of rest and activity.
Scientists who study the circadian rhythm estimate that it takes you one full day to recover for every hour of time difference. So, if you travel from New York to London expect about five days to overcome jet lag.
Yikes! That could be your entire vacation!
Interestingly, the direction you travel can affect the severity of your jet lag symptoms. Traveling east (speeding up time), seems to be more difficult on the body than traveling west (delaying time).
And yes, even experienced travelers suffer from jet lag. It’s not something we can condition our bodies for. Yet, for over 50 years humans continue to look for the magic elixir to combat jet lag’s effects.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s biologist and devotee of daily biological rhythms, Charles Ehret, developed the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag Diet in the 1980’s.
Researchers claim it has helped hundreds of thousands of travelers. Travelers who followed the diet were seven times less likely to experience jet lag when traveling west (Arizona to Australia) and 16 times less likely when traveling east (Arizona to France).
The diet appears to be highly effective at eliminating or reducing jet lag for travelers crossing three or more time zones. Unfortunately, the diet is intense and may not be feasible for everyone since it requires alternate feasting and fasting for up to four days before travel date.
Now for a user friendly version of the Anti-Jet Lag Diet
Taking the research for the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag diet and combined with newer research (and some common sense) has resulted in a more user friendly pre-boarding diet.
The research by a team from Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, co-created the Anti Jet-Lag Fast. The diet is simple and based on the fasting components of the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag diet.
The Anti Jet-Lag Fast has one instruction: do not eat for twelve to sixteen hours before breakfast time in the new time zone. The proponents say this works due to an internal master clock that resets automatically, as soon as we start eating again.
Not eating for 12 hours may seem extreme but when you consider that finishing dinner at 8pm and having breakfast the next day at 8am is 12 hours, it’s apparent it’s doable.
However, the suggested hours for fasting would not be advised if you have a medical condition, are taking medications, have diabetes, hypoglycemia, are underweight or have a history of disordered eating. Of course, if you’re pregnant or breast feeding, intermittent fasting isn’t a good diet for you either.
The jet-lag hormone connection … another solution?
The use of various herbs for sleep disorders are well documented yet research shows that a hormone has the greatest effect when it comes to jet lag.
The hormone, melatonin is produced in the pineal gland from the amino acid tryptophan. Melatonin controls circadian rhythms, letting our body know when it’s day or night. Melatonin has other roles, as an antioxidant and involved in the functioning of the immune system.
Melatonin production starts in the evening hours, when the sun sets and darkness sets off the release of melatonin. The production continues throughout our sleep and drops off once we awake and are exposed to light.
Over the counter melatonin is recommended for jet lag, since it reduces sleep issues, such as insomnia, and increases alertness and recovery based on research results. A government review of 10 well-designed studies revealed that 9 out of 10 studies confirmed that melatonin does work to alleviate jet lag.
Melatonin taken close to the target bedtime at the destination (10pm to midnight), decreased jet-lag from flights crossing five or more time zones. From the studies, the daily dose of melatonin that worked the best was between 0.5mg and 5mg.
Doses above 5mg appear to be no more effective. The relative ineffectiveness of 2mg “slow-release” melatonin suggests that a short-lived higher peak concentration of melatonin works.
Combining strategies for outsmarting the effects of jet lag
My 6 years of living in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) meant a minimum of yearly flights home to New York (a 10 hour flight) crossing 5 time zones.
As the research now proves, the 5 day hang-over I experienced upon returning from my vacation in NY back to the Middle East (flying eastward), was to be expected.
We can’t eliminate jet lag with our current circadian software running the show. However, there are a set of combined strategies for reducing the effects of jet lag. A combination of food, hormone supplementation, movement, light, sound, and attitude can soften the impact of landing in a new time
Here’s my top strategies for outsmarting the effects of jet lag:
- Years ago I started scheduling a “cushion day” – taking off the day before my flight departs. This day allows me to prepare physically and mentally, for the upcoming day of expected “airport induced stress” that is part of modern day flight. If feasible, give yourself a cushion day.
- Minimum of three nights before you depart, change your bedtime. If traveling to a different time zone and going east, go to bed 1 hour earlier for each time zone you cross; if you’re traveling west, go to bed one hour later for each time zone you cross
- For flights departing mid-day, eat a higher protein (than usual) breakfast and lunch; while going low on carbs for both meals. Start to fast immediately before and especially during the flight, while drinking plenty of water during the flight. You may need to adjust actual meal times based on your flight time.Upon arrival, break your fast by trying to match this meal as close as possible to the local meal time. Then start a normal meal schedule based on local time.
- Once on the plane, adjust your watch to match the time of your final destination and act according to that time. For example, if it’s time to sleep in the place you’re going, try to sleep on the plane. If it is daytime, do activities that keep you awake. This is the time to bring out the crossword puzzles or watch a stimulating movie from Netflix.
- The use of a sleeping mask and earplugs can assist in catching shut eye (if the flight coincides with sleep time of your destination). Blocking out artificial lighting by using the sleeping mask helps the body to naturally produce melatonin.
- Consider taking melatonin (ask your doctor to ensure its okay). Dose and timing is critical. Wait until you land in the new time zone to use Melatonin. Start with 0.5mg taken the evening of arrival at your destination, one hour before bedtime in your new location.
- During the flight, avoid sleeping pills and caffeine-containing beverages such as cola’s, energy drinks, coffee, and even chocolate containing beverages and foods can stimulate the central nervous system.
- Before you board, and during your flight, drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Better choices are water, fruit or vegetable juice, and low sugar containing sodas. Avoid alcohol because of it robs the body of fluids and suppresses the central nervous system.Are you visiting the rest room enough? Check your hydration status—is your urine pale or yellow to clear? Remember the lighter the color the better.
- Plan for inflight fitness moves. Set your phone alarm to remind you to get up and walk to the back of the plane every hour. When in the rear of the plan, do semi-squats to pump blood to some of the largest muscles of the body. Other simple moves, stand up on your toes, stretch out your arms overhead, or roll your neck gently.
If you arrive at your destination during the day, get outside to expose yourself to as many hours of daylight as the number of time zones you crossed. For example, from Seattle, Washington to Miami, Florida, you cross 3 time zones so when you arrive try to spend 3 hours outside in Miami (tough to do, I know).
- Upon arrival, even though you may be tempted, don’t go to bed until the evening hours, after the sun has set. I’ve been in destinations where during the summer, the sun doesn’t set until 10pm. By keeping myself vertical and outside, until that time, even though it meant I’d technically been awake for 21 hours, starts the process of retraining my brain for the new light cycle.
Our gut is impacted by jet lag
In addition to the symptoms and disruption of vacation time, there is another reason to plan for trips that take you into another time zone. A study in 2014 showed that frequent fliers across continents have a disruption of their biological clock leading to obesity or other metabolic problems. The reason for this disruption: gut microbiome (bacteria in your gut) balance.
New research has suggested that not only does our body collectively have a circadian rhythm (or master clock) but each of our vital organs also have their own circadian rhythm. This means that your gut may become confused when you’re eating lunch at a time when the day before, you were just waking up to start your
Your final destination …
Don’t forget about the return home! It will likely take about a day for each time zone crossed to recover. If feasible, have a 1-2 day cushion before returning to work. If that’s not possible, exposure to the sun, perhaps with a morning walk, will help your body realize its back home.
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