The Truth About Jet Lag

May 7, 2017

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Convinced you’re late for work, you panic at 2:00am. You’re set for a good night’s sleep — at lunchtime. The sun has set as scheduled, but you can’t grasp why it’s dark outside. Sound familiar?

No matter how experienced a traveler you are, jet lag is hard to outwit — nearly 93% of all travelers will experience it at some point, according to the American Sleep Association, and yet a cure seems as elusive as those 40 winks you were robbed of after flying from Los Angeles to London. You’ve probably tried reputed remedies from natural light therapy to melatonin dosing to a brisk workout. But nothing seems to work except just waiting it out and suffering the consequences, which can including everything from mild discomfort and discombobulation all the way up to actual physiological damage.

“It’s a source of stress for the body, especially when it turns into a lack of sleep,” says Dr. Mark Liponis, medical director at the Lenox, MA-based Canyon Ranch spa-resort network. “It’s bad for the immune system. The brain’s cleansing activity happens at night, when we sleep. So you may not get the best brain activity with jet lag. And for people who are jet-lagged for long periods, you may even see a little inflammation.”

The term “jet lag” is a bit of a misnomer. What’s really happening is that our bodies’ natural clocks and the real-world clocks of our arrival destination are out of sync. We set our internal, or circadian, clocks by the amount of sunlight we get and by our pineal glands, which produce the natural melatonin that regulates our sleep. When we cross multiple time zones, the sunlight (or rather, the lack of sunlight) we’re seeing contradicts what our internal clocks expect to see, making us feel like we’ve been thrust into the wrong space and time until our brains have had time to reset our circadian rhythms. Conventional wisdom says that normally takes one day per time zone crossed.

Certain factors may make jet lag even worse. Jamie Zeitzer, a Stanford University assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who conducts sleep research, points to dehydration as a major culprit in issues related to jet lag, including headaches, fatigue and nausea.

Jet lag occurs when our body's internal clock and the real world disagree on what time of day it's supposed to be. Image courtesy of Compassionate Eye Foundation/Steve Smith via Getty Images.
Jet lag occurs when our body’s internal clock and the real world disagree on what time of day it’s supposed to be. Image courtesy of Compassionate Eye Foundation/Steve Smith via Getty Images.

So, what’s a hardcore traveler to do?

“Buck up,” Liponis says. “We need a pill that completely fixes jet lag, but it doesn’t exist.”

Melatonin, the beloved tonic for so many frequent travelers, isn’t the panacea some believe it to be. The thinking is that since the pineal gland produces melatonin, you can trick the body by taking a melatonin pill. “But it doesn’t work that way,” Liponis said. “Melatonin may make you sleep a little sooner, but it doesn’t keep you asleep.”

Prescription sleep aids like Ambien may seem to offer relief, and can sometimes be useful as a shortcut to getting on the local clock, but they require careful and medically supervised use because they come with a host of other potential side effects.

“Some doctors are prescribing Ambien and then stimulants for travelers, which I hate — it’s like what they used to prescribe for Judy Garland,” said Liponis.

Still, there may be hope — if you’re willing to wait. Zeitzer’s research found that when he flashed light for a millisecond at a time at sleepers wearing eye masks, they synchronized to new time zones more quickly.

“You can change your timing before you leave,” Zeitzer said. “If you’re traveling from New York to California, you can get your brain on California time.”

It’s a promising lead, and Zeitzer is part of a team working to turn those findings into a commercial product, but it isn’t out yet. And though airlines like SAS are also experimenting with light therapy, there are drawbacks.

“It’s a great idea if you’re flying from Los Angeles to Stockholm and spent a month in LA prior to leaving,” Zeitzer said. “But it can actually make things worse if you’re flying from, say, Hong Kong to LA and LA to Stockholm. One size fits all doesn’t work with lighting.”

Until the promised cure-all is on the shelves, we’re going to have to make do with what we know — or what we think we know. Since light is what our brains use to figure out what time it is, we can use it to tell our brains when it’s time to reset our internal clocks. So, for now, Zeitzer says to expose yourself to light so that it realigns your biology with your behavior.

“If you’re traveling eastward, go out for a run first thing in the morning,” said Zeitzer. “You’ll get morning light when you need it, and the exercise always helps.”

And don’t discount the power of psychology when it comes to placebos. Popular cures “are sort of like when people say they know the best way to have a boy child,” Liponis said, laughing. “They’re right half the time.”

What jet-lag cures do you swear by? Tell us about them, below.

Featured image courtesy of AnaBGD via Getty Images. 

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