If you’re a frequent traveler, you may have thought that jet lag is simply an inevitable part of the experience. It doesn't matter where you go, what you do — you’re at the mercy of your circadian clock, a very powerful, yet very stubborn, pacemaker.
But no matter how much you expect it, jet lag is no fun. You don’t travel abroad to spend several days being tired and irritable. And if you’re someone who travels for work, can you really afford to not be at 100 percent?
There is no magic cure for jet lag. But there are science-proven methods you can use to significantly reduce its symptoms until it lets go of you. Here are six things you can do to “hack” your body to avoid the worst of jet lag.
Why Does Jet Lag Occur?
The first known mention of the phrase “jet lag” (officially known as desynchronosis) was in a 1966 LA Times article, in which author Horace Sutton wrote, “If you’re going to be a member of the Jet Set and fly off to Katmandu for coffee with King Mahendra…you can count on contracting Jet Lag, a debility not unakin to a hangover. Jet Lag derives from the simple fact that jets travel so fast they leave your body rhythms behind.”1
Humans, like many other organisms, are governed by a cluster of 20,000 neurons in a tiny region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). These neurons control our circadian clocks, 24-hour internal pacemakers that regulates our behavior, physiology, and even metabolism. They also influence individual cells and organ systems.
Circadian rhythms ensure that our bodies have a regular and predictable pattern of when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to go to bed. Disruption to circadian rhythms can have detrimental effects, such as:
- Metabolic syndrome (learn more about metabolic syndrome here: Are Pollutants Causing Heart Disease and Type 2 Diabetes?)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Weight gain
- Slower thinking
Let’s think of the circadian clock as a pendulum that swings from “feeling awake” when it’s light outside to “feeling sleepy” when it’s dark out. Most people get used to waking up and going to sleep around the same time every day. Jet lag, then, occurs when this pendulum swing gets interrupted by rapid travel across time zones or by inconsistent sleep schedules.
In other words, jet lag is a result of your sleep pattern not syncing with your circadian rhythms.
Thankfully, symptoms of jet lag are temporary. The body is fairly quick to adjust to a new time zone — around an hour per day. This means that for a five hour difference, it would normally take about five days for your body to fully recover. In the meantime, you’ll experience symptoms of jet lag, such as fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite, coordination problems, gastrointestinal disturbances, etc.
But you don’t have to wait several days for your body to adjust. Read on to find out six science-backed ways to hack jet lag.
6 Ways to Hack Jet Lag
1. Stop Junk Light with TrueDark® Twilight Classic Glasses
In most organisms, including humans, the circadian rhythms are synchronized through regular exposure to light and darkness. But not all lights have the same effect. You’ve probably heard of the term “blue light,” which refers to the wavelength of light that is beneficial during daytime but is disruptive at night.
But why, exactly, is blue light bad for you?
All light is made up of waves, and each color has a different amount of energy associated with it. Red light, which is at the beginning of the visible spectrum, has low energy waves, and is easier on our eyes, especially at night. On the other hand, blue light has short wavelength and also has the highest energy in the visible spectrum, making it more tiresome for our eyes.
The high energy of blue light has been shown to damage mitochondria, the energy producers in your cells. This effect is particularly noticeable in the eyes, as cells in your retina depend on the high energy produced by an abundance of mitochondria. If your eyes have ever felt strained or dry after using your phone or tablet for a long period of time, blue light is your culprit. Excessive exposure to blue light results in damage to the structure and function of retinal mitochondria and eventually leads to cell death.
Your body also produces a hormone called melatonin when it gets dark outside, telling your body that it should get ready to go to sleep. And while any light can suppress melatonin secretion, blue light at night does so more than any other wavelength of light. Harvard researchers found that “blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (three hours vs. one and half hours).”2
Exposure to concentrated blue light is one of the biggest reasons for jet lag, as most planes use fluorescent or LED-based light sources, both of which are sources of blue light. Your circadian rhythms are simply scrambled.
When I travel, I use TrueDark Twilight glasses, which block even the harshest blue, violet, and green sleep-robbing wavelengths of light emitted by fluorescent lights, LEDs, and electronics like computers and phones. It is the only product I’ve found that works with melanopsin, a protein in retinal ganglion cells known to play a critical role in the circadian response to light.
2. Expose Yourself to Flashing Light While Sleeping
I know what you must be thinking. I just spent all that time telling you to block out blue light as much as possible when you travel. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution for jet lag, and this method from a Stanford University research team just might be what works for you.
Some light-therapy methods require sitting in front of a bright light for several hours at a time, a few days before your flight in an effort to shift your body clock to the destination time zone. When coupled with shifts in sleep schedule, this method of light therapy could trick the brain and speed up its adjustment to time changes, reducing or even eliminating symptoms of jet lag.
However, the Stanford University research team found that exposure to short flashes of light during sleep was more effective and efficient than continuous light exposure. The study found that a sequence of just two millisecond flashes of light (the equivalent of a camera flash), 10 seconds apart resulted in a two hour delay in the onset of sleepiness. On the other hand, continuous light exposure resulted in only a 36-minute delay.3
But why are flashing lights better at resetting your circadian rhythm?
Your body’s circadian rhythms are most sensitive to light at night, even when your eyes are closed. This means that a small amount of light can penetrate your eyelids, stimulating a small subset of ganglion cells that transmit the light information to the brain. But these cells are a bit sluggish — they continue to fire for several seconds after the stimulus (in this case, the light) is no longer there. The Stanford research team also believes that gaps of darkness between flashing lights allow cones in the retina to regenerate, i.e., go from an inactive form to one that can respond to light.3
Furthermore, this method of light therapy is less likely to disrupt your sleep. The study found that most participants slept through the flashing lights. On the other hand, continuous bright light during sleep would cause and/or sustain awakenings.4
3. Stay Hydrated
If you’ve ever gotten off a long flight with a dry nose and mouth, dry skin, headache, and/or a sore throat, you’re not alone.
To understand how and why this occurs, let’s briefly look into the air you breathe on the plane. The air in the cabin is a mixture of air from outside the plane and recycled air from inside the cabin. But here’s where the problem lies. When flying at high altitudes (~35,000 feet), the air coming from outside the plane has low water vapor content, which must be compensated by excess water loss through increased rate of breathing.
Some newer planes like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 have higher levels of humidity (approximately 25 percent) compared to those of older planes (10-15 percent), but they still fall short of the 30 to 60 percent humidity levels in most homes. This may not seem like a huge deal, but research shows that mild dehydration — a body water loss of just one to two percent — can lead to declines in physical and cognitive performance.5
Simply put, airplanes are flying deserts.
To prevent dehydration, the Aerospace Medical Association (ASMA) recommends drinking about eight ounces of water each hour and using a hydrating nasal spray. This is especially important during flights longer than three or four hours. Consumption of alcohol, tea, and caffeinated products should also be limited because they promote diuresis. If you prefer a little bit of alcohol during a long flight, that’s fine — just make up for it by drinking water.
Don’t forget about hydrating before your flight! You don’t have to wait until you’re on the plane to start drinking water. Drink plenty of water and stock up on hydrating snacks like fruits and vegetables.
Lastly, eye drops and travel-size moisturizers can do wonders for your hydration.
4. Make Smart Food Choices
When it comes to eating during your flight, the ideal choice is to eat nothing at all. In 2009, Dr. Clifford Saper and colleagues at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, identified a second “master clock” located in the dorsomedial nucleus, a cluster of brain cells that can take over and suspend the body’s circadian rhythms to conserve energy when food is scarce. The reason for this, the researchers believe, is that food is as essential for survival as sleep is, and thus is able to influence circadian rhythms.6
Dr. Saper recommends travelers try fasting before and during a long flight. Once you reach your destination, you should eat in a pattern that is in sync with the local time.
Some people may find help in the Argonne Diet, a method created by Charles Ehret of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in the 1980s.7 Basically, the system alternates feasting and fasting and ends with a protein-rich breakfast. It can be summarized as follows:
- Determine the time of breakfast at your destination. This time is when each of the diet’s days will start and end. For example, let’s say you’re traveling from Washington, D.C. to Beijing, China. Since there is a difference of 12 hours from Washington, D.C. to Beijing, China (i.e., 7 PM in Washington, D.C. is 7 AM in Beijing), each 24-hour “day” of the diet would go from 7 PM to 7 PM EST.
- Day 1 – Feast Day: Eat a high-protein breakfast and lunch (eggs, cheese, meats, etc.) and a high-carb, low-protein meal (pasta, potatoes, rice, bread) for dinner. Eat all meals at regular times, but stay away from coffee, tea, caffeinated drinks, or alcohol except between 3 PM and 5 PM in your home time zone.
- Day 2 – Modified Fast: Eat only light meals (e.g., salads, fruits, juices, thin soups, toast, etc.). Keep carbs, fats, and calories to a minimum. Follow day 1’s rule regarding caffeine and alcohol consumption.
- Day 3 – Repeat Feast Day
- Day 4 (Departure Day) – Repeat Fast Day: Have a high-protein breakfast at breakfast time in your destination city. Consume caffeinated beverages only between 6 PM and 11 PM if you’re traveling eastward. If traveling westward, consume them only in the morning hours. Try to stay awake and active after breakfast, and eat lunch and dinner according to your destination’s mealtimes.
The Argonne Diet has been used by the Army, the Navy, and the CIA to reduce jet lag symptoms. But many people, including children, could have difficulty following such a diet. In such cases, a high-fiber, low-carb diet is recommended for a more restorative sleep.8
5. Take Melatonin
Melatonin is a natural hormone made by a pea-sized gland in your brain called the pineal gland. Once known as the “third eye,” the pineal gland has a light-transducing ability, meaning it becomes active as darkness occurs. Once released, melatonin plays a pivotal role in sleep by conveying the message of darkness to the circadian clock and induces night-state physiological functions.
Melatonin has long been shown to be effective in improving jet lag symptoms. One study found that when taken close to the target bedtime of the destination, participants who took daily doses of melatonin had reduced symptoms of jet lag when flying across five or more time zones. The results didn’t reveal significant differences between groups who took 0.5 mg of melatonin versus 5 mg, except that those who took 5 mg fell asleep faster and slept better.9
Taking a small amount of melatonin 30 minutes before the time you want to go to sleep can help your body adjust to changes in time zones. An effective low-dose melatonin supplement I recommend is Slow Motion Melatonin, a specially-prepared supplement that has been stabilized in a patent-pending lipid matrix system to protect it from harsh stomach acid.
6. Wear Compression Gear
You’ve likely heard this one before: wear compression socks when you fly. But have you ever wondered why?
The answer is that compression gear like compression socks can help with blood circulation. This is especially important during long flights, where you’re sitting relatively still in one position for several hours in an environment that has low air pressure and decreased oxygen. The slowed blood circulation increases your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially life-threatening condition in which a blood clot forms in one of the deep veins of your legs. Although many blood clots will resolve on their own, they can also break off and travel to the lungs, resulting in a blockage called pulmonary embolism.
Flights longer than eight to 10 hours pose the highest risk. To prevent DVT, the American Society of Hematology recommends getting up regularly during the flight to stretch your legs and exercise. A 2016 Cochrane report also found that compression socks, which apply gentle pressure to the ankle, significantly reduced the incidence of DVT as well as leg swelling.10
If you’re in for a really long flight, you may want to consider investing in other types of compression gear in addition to compression socks. They may help you be less inflamed after a flight.
Jet Lag is Not a Badge of Honor
Jet lag may have become a part of modern life, but let’s face it — jet lag is not a badge of honor. Although temporary, it can have serious impacts for some people with symptoms ranging anywhere from weight gain to heartbeat irregularities.
But that doesn’t mean you have to rely on sleeping pills or prescription medications to nudge your circadian clock in the right direction whenever you travel. Before your next long flight, try following some of the tips I discussed above. I’d love to hear back about what worked and didn’t work for you!
Now it’s time to hear from you. What are some methods you use to prevent or reduce symptoms of jet lag when you travel? What have you tried that didn’t work for you? Share your experiences in the comments section below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.