Tips on Dealing with Jet Lag
Jet lag is a phenomenon that occurs when traveling across several time zones. It can cause a variety of symptoms varying in severity from a minor annoyance to significant impairment in normal functioning and varying in type throughout multiple organ systems. These symptoms can include lethargy and an inability to maintain sleep, GI upset, diarrhea, depressed or irritable mood, difficulty concentrating, and myalgias to name a few. Travelers have long sought a remedy to this condition given the degree of discomfort it can cause.
I’ve written this article to summarize key information I’ve found in researching this topic over the last few years. If you would prefer to speak with me directly about Jet Lag, I’d be happy to do so – click HERE to set up a FREE phone consultation.
Though the common understanding is that these symptoms are related to a change in time zones, more specifically, they are related to an abrupt change in the time of eyes’ exposure to light. As is also commonly known, jet lag in traveling west to east is typically more pronounced than from east to west, owing to a natural inclination to, without other constraints “go to bed later” in that circadian rhythm can often be closer to 25 rather than 24 hours.
Thus, though symptoms occur in both directions, even without changing anything, the sleep-wake cycle will more naturally (albeit gradually) acclimate to a change from west to east rather than east to west. Typically, with no other intervention, one can acclimate to a change of about one hour per day. However, if one were to take a trip somewhere with a 7-hour time difference for 7 days, this would mean that much of the trip would be spent acclimating to the time zone. How might one be able to reduce the discomfort in the process?
There are essentially 3 aspects to doing this:
Changing the time at which one rises in the morning
Ensuring light exposure at particular times
Changing the timing of meals.
There are also two optional aspects that we will discuss later. The key science related to this is that melatonin is typically released a few hours before bedtime and cannot be adjusted quickly, that melatonin release is related to exposure to bright light earlier in the day, that intestinal flora has their own circadian rhythm which also cannot be changed abruptly, and that based on sleep patterns and melatonin release, the body has variations in temperature, including a minimum temperature a few hours before awakening. This also cannot be quickly changed and explains one reason why suddenly trying to sleep at a totally different time can feel physically uncomfortable including feeling overly “warm.”
In order to minimize distress during travel, one can begin the adjustment process prior to traveling, experiencing minimal discomfort. First, consider the actual time difference and then what you expect your schedule to be like. For example, if there is a time difference of 7 hours and you usually get up at 7 am, but during your trip, you will probably be getting up at 9 am, you don’t necessarily need to adjust the entire 7 hours then, as a key aspect is a time at which you get up and your eyes are exposed to light. So, if it is 7 am in your home country and 3 pm in the country you will be traveling to, this would mean that if nothing changed and there was no jet lag, and you kept exactly the same schedule, you would be getting up at 3 pm in the destination country – i.e. a 7-hour difference between 7 am and 3 pm. However, if you plan on getting up at 9 am once there, this would actually be a 5-hour difference (between 9 am and 3 pm). If this were all there was to it and you were ok with waking up late in the afternoon, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But, because of the likely differences in eating timing, some degree of sunlight exposure, and perhaps other factors, it’s often not possible to just keep exactly the same schedule owing to jet lag symptoms, which again leads us back to needing to figure out how to minimize them.
So, if the goal is to address a difference of 5 hours “ahead,” ideally you should try to shift your sleep schedule at least a portion of that prior to the trip. It’s fairly easy to adjust one’s schedule by 30 minutes every couple of days. Decide for yourself how much of an adjustment you want to make prior to the trip, and then get up 30 minutes earlier every couple of days. You can, in addition to this, also go to bed 30 minutes earlier but actually, the key thing is getting up 30 minutes earlier. When you get up, make sure to immediately expose your eyes to bright light – in order to do this you can either immediately go outside or face some sunlight for one hour, purchase a special lamp (typically sold as mood-related lamps) or special glasses which beam light of a particular frequency into your eyes (Re-Timer). All are effective. (Note that just using regular light bulbs or regular home lighting probably will not be effective because the light of a particular frequency is required.) This should be done for an hour when you get up – by doing so, after 1-2 days you should begin to develop a natural inclination to want to fall asleep a little earlier, and the timing of melatonin release in your brain will likely begin to shift slightly earlier.
The next part will be to begin to shift your eating schedule, and I will note that if you eat on an intermittent fasting diet, this is ideal for dealing with jet lag, as there is less of a time window to need to shift and because you are used to fasting for 16 hours. Even if not, the key idea is to begin to shift your eating schedule towards that which it will be in your destination. If you are used to eating your biggest meal at home at a time when, on your trip, you plan to be sleeping in the middle of the night, this will make things difficult. Implementation of this can thus vary from person to person but try to keep that in mind and gradually shift both the times at which you eat and when you eat most of your calories. For example, you might shift all your meals, over the course of several days, by a few hours, and then shift your biggest meal from, for example, dinner time to lunchtime. The last key part of this is to fast for 16 hours prior to breakfast in your destination country. When you break the fast, avoid high-fat or very high-protein foods, and at first, stick to primary carbs.
Optional other means of reducing jet lag are: First, take probiotics in the mornings when you awake and continue to shift the time of taking them as you shift your time of rising each morning. Second, consider taking 0.5-1mg of melatonin 3-4 hours before bedtime to also help you shift your bedtime.
I hope that this has been helpful. If you are interested in a more personalized detailed plan for the treatment of Jet Lag in New York, please contact me, Jim Dhrymes MD. Happy travels!