Sleeping poorly on a work trip may seem insignificant, but the consequences of jet lag are wide-ranging and costly. From making more mistakes, missing opportunities, and low productivity to disruption of our immune function, compromised safety, and less personal time.
Jet lag is caused when our internal circadian clock is disrupted — our sleep/wake and light/dark cycles shift too quickly for our circadian clock to keep up. Before jet travel, humans were incapable of moving through several times zones in a matter of hours, but with jet travel we do, and our bodies have not evolved to cope.
The only way to dramatically accelerate adaptation to new time zones is managing when you see and avoid light. The right light exposure at the right time can significantly accelerate your adaptation. Seeing light at the wrong time will make your jet lag worse. Melatonin supplements can speed up adaptation but only if you take the right type and dose, at the right time, along with correctly scheduled light exposure.
Jet lag myths
With this in mind, Timeshifter’s Mickey Beyer-Clausen looks at some of the many persistent misconceptions about how to alleviate jet lag circulating via magazines and blogs — many are even kept alive by the travel industry.
- Myth 1: “Sleep as much as possible on the plane”
If you sleep at a time when you should be exposing yourself to light, you will end up shifting your body clock in the wrong direction and make your jet lag worse.
- Myth 2: “Use sleep medications”
Pills such as Valium or Ambien can be so easy and tempting to use to get some sleep in a noisy plane or in a hotel, but they do nothing to shift your internal circadian clock – and even worse, may lead to you missing your chance to see light at the correct time.
- Myth 3: “Use massages or acupuncture”
As pleasant as they may feel, neither massage nor acupuncture have been shown in any properly conducted study to affect your circadian clock.
- Myth 4: “Try special diets”
Countless unqualified “wellness gurus” will claim that fasting or fancy diets can alleviate jet lag, and it’s simply not true. The few studies that have purported to show that fasting can shift the circadian clock have been done on rodents – which are nocturnal animals and inappropriate for the study of humans, who are diurnal (active during the day).
- Myth 5: “Take a morning run”
While regular exercise can help with regulating your sleeping patterns in normal life, exercise is a very weak circadian clock synchronizer so it doesn’t help reset your circadian clock. Also, 7am in your new time zone could be 2am in your circadian clock, making this a terrible time to exercise.
- Myth 6: “Trust airplane lighting”
New forms of LED lighting may be far more sophisticated, and aircraft manufacturers and plenty of airlines insist they will help you with jet lag. However, any lights in an aircraft can subject you to light at the wrong time, and this will make your jet lag worse.
- Myth 7: “Travel in business class”
Spending that extra bit of cash for a comfortable seat (or even a bed) to help you sleep during a flight can be extremely appealing – especially if it means you can be ready to hit the ground running and head into work or an important meeting when you arrive. Go ahead and splurge for the bed if you can – but make sure you sleep at the correct times to properly prevent jet lag.
- Myth 8: “Stay at five-star hotels”
Investing in a plush hotel room with expensive and luxurious mattresses, pillows and bedding can indeed be tempting – but just as with business class, this won’t address your jet lag unless you time light exposure correctly and sleep at the appropriate times.
- Myth 9: “Stay hydrated”
Though it’s important to stay hydrated and drink enough water in general, there is zero evidence it can have any impact on your circadian clock.
- Myth 10: “Power through with lots of caffeine”
Many have given up on jet lag, and just use a lot of caffeine to survive. Although caffeine doesn’t shift the circadian clock, it can help mask the symptoms. Just be careful not to use it eight hours before sleep as it can make it difficult to fall asleep and disrupt your sleep quality.
Timing is everything
The challenge is to find the right timing for when to see and avoid light, take melatonin, sleep or nap, and use caffeine effectively. Solving this challenge is deceptively complicated, and can only be determined based on your sleep pattern, chronotype, and itinerary. With the Timeshifter jet lag app, you can create personalized jet lag plans with all of this in mind.