I travel across the country often.
As a sleep researcher, I travel so often that I am on a first name basis with the TSA and lounge employees in the airport.
For frequent flyers, traveling gets harder, not easier, over time.
Sure we develop travel routines and have our little tips and tricks; but this back-n-forth travel has long-term consequences on our physiology and health.
Even if you aren't changing time zones when you travel, chances are you are shifting your clock simply by waking up early for your flights (or by getting back late at night).
Social jet lag - the event of waking up a few hours earlier, eating earlier, and being stressed earlier than usual - is just as straining on our body clocks as actually shifting time zones.
Here’s where modern medicine and technology can actually be used to our benefit.
Below is a frequent traveler's guide to ensure that your airline miles aren’t keeping you from performing at your absolute best.
How Jet Lag Impacts Your Body
In order to understand how to reduce jet lag, you must understand what exactly “jet lag” is.
At the most simplified level, jet lag is experienced when our external environment becomes misaligned with our internal environment.
Our internal environment is built on a daily routine of eating, working, exercise, relaxing, and sleeping.
When we don't exercise at a particular time (or don't eat at a particular time), our body clocks notice this, inducing a slight stress response.
When multiple stressors like this build up, it can lead to jet lag.
Below are three rules of how jet lag works:
1. The first rule of jet lag is that it takes a day to re-adjust for every three time zones we cross or every three hours we wake up earlier.
2. The second rule of jet lag is that westward travel is easier than eastward. Our internal clock ticks at a speed of greater than 24 hours. Therefore, it is easier to stay up later than to go to bed earlier. I'll discuss a strategy you can use for going to bed earlier in the next section.
3. The third rule of jet lag is that if you load up on sleep prior to travel, it makes it easier to handle the sleep deprivation of travel. Sleep is like a bank account. The more you credit, the more you can take out.
Strategies for Combating Jet Lag
Below are my top 3 tips for how to combat jet lag (plus I include a bonus tip at the end!).
This is one of the few times that you will see me write that timed light is good. Light is the most powerful re-enforcer of wakefulness (you can read our article on this topic here). Bright light in the morning lets your body clocks know it's time to wake up and seize the day.
The more light, the better.
For overnight travelers, exposing yourself to bright light without sunglasses upon landing in the morning sends a clear message to your brain that it's time to seize the day.
Caffeine combined with light is the best strategy for staying alert the day of, or the day after, long-haul travel. A strong 8 oz cup of coffee has 60 mg of caffeine. Caffeine acts within 20 minutes and the alertness-enhancing effect can last for over 2 hours.
Pairing caffeine with bright sunlight in the morning and maybe a caffeine right before a nap in the afternoon (to reap the benefits of both a nap and caffeine) is a good strategy to have.
Endorphins released during exercise enhance alertness.
On average, it takes your body 2 -3 hours to calm down after a high-intensity workout. How sensitive one is to jet lag is dependent on how quickly one's internal rhythm of core body temperature adjusts.
Exercise after you arrive in the morning after a long-haul or in the evening after landing (if traveling westward) can accelerate the adjustment.
4. Natural Sleep Aids (BONUS TIP)
Sleep aids are a good way to quickly re-adjust, especially if traveling eastward.
Natural sleep aids are packed with natural ingredients that help your body to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Aim for a natural sleep aid made with ingredients such as:
- Tart Cherry Powder (supports the body's natural melatonin production)
- Valerian Root (helps you initially fall asleep)
- Melatonin (make sure to use a low dosage formula)
- As well as Magnesium (aids in relaxation)
Utzy includes these different ingredients in their award winning natural sleep aid formulas.
These strategies when timed appropriately can help you stay at your best flight in and flight out.
Try these tips out on your next flight!
Dr. Allison Brager is a neuroscientist specializing in the physiology and genetics of sleep and performance. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the "dumb jock" and serves as a manual for optimizing athletic performance through neuroscience. Outside of the laboratory, she is a former college athlete and Crossfit Games team athlete.