How to Prevent Jet Lag

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN

Exhaustion, fatigue, and massive sleep disruption- we’ve all experienced the symptoms of jet lag. Jet lag occurs when you travel across at least two time zones within a 24 hour period. And nearly 4 million people travel by air across two times zones every day. The feelings of jet lag can last for several days, completely disrupting the body’s circadian clocks, thus putting our health at risk. Our circadian clock takes about one day to adjust to each hour of time zone shifting, although for some people, it can take two days per hour of time zone shifting. With summer approaching, soon many of us will be jetting off to faraway places and changing time zones in the process. Here are our best tips for preventing jet lag and preparing the body for a new time zone.

1.) Fast on the plane

First of all, airplane food leaves a lot to be desired in terms of nutritional quality. The foods offered are highly processed and most airlines provide a number of small packaged ‘empty calorie’ foods like rolls, muffins, crackers, and cookies. Main meals need to be able to withstand cooking, cooling, and reheating, which often means they lack satisfactory texture and taste, resulting in the need for added salt and sugar to make foods more palatable. But even if on the off chance you are served a nutritious meal on board your next flight, it’s best to skip it. Fasting on the plane will allow you to more quickly sync your circadian clock with that of your new time zone.

2.) Utilize a breathing aid

When you’re flying on a plane, you’re exposed to lower oxygen levels than you breathe at sea level. Over the course of several hours, blood oxygen saturation drops, causing fatigue and brain fog. Breathing aids, such as nasal strips, open the nostrils which allow you to breathe at least 20-50% more oxygen. This increase in air (and oxygen) is significant given the reduction in oxygen while on the plane. Though you might get a few side glances, using a nasal strip to open your nasal passages can reduce fatigue and decrease symptoms of jet lag after reaching your destination.

3.) Hydrate on the plane

Dehydration from air travel contributes to the fatigue and headaches associated with jet lag. Rather than expose yourself to BPA and add to landfills by stocking up on plastic water bottles, bring a large stainless steel water bottle with you and fill it up once you pass through security. Whenever the flight attendants come around offering refreshments, ask them to refill your water bottle. Although this will increase your need for bathroom breaks, getting up to walk around the plane will help improve circulation in your legs and feet.

4.) Eat a healthy meal on the new time zone schedule

This is important because eating at a mealtime in the new time zone synchronizes the circadian clock in the gut. Allowing the gut to get on track in the new time zone will improve your digestion and absorption. Additionally, jet lag causes a shift in the microbiome, and not for the better. The changes seen in the microbiomes of jet lagged individuals support obesity. In fact, fecal microbial transplants have been performed from jet lagged people into healthy mice for research purposes. Results found that post transplant, the healthy mice became obese, despite the fact that their diet remained unchanged. Synchronizing the circadian clock in the gut and providing good quality nutrition will ensure that your body recovers from your travel quickly and efficiently.

5.) Do some morning exercise outside in the new time zone

A brisk walk, cycling, or jogging outdoors the first morning since arriving in your new time zone will help you wake up and energize for the coming day. Being exposed to early morning light is essential for fighting jet lag because it helps synchronize the brain clock. In fact, this technique is often used for individuals with sleep disorders.

6.) Take melatonin in the evening to help with sleep

Perhaps the most important factor in fighting off long term jet lag is getting a good night’s sleep on your first night at your destination. One way to help this is to avoid napping before you go to sleep that night. Napping, which is normally a great way to reduce sleep debt and rejuvenate the system, should be avoided when dealing with jet lag. Napping can prolong the disruption to the circadian clock, exacerbating symptoms and prolonging recovery. Another way to sleep well is to take a melatonin supplement 2-3 hours before bedtime, which is when endogenous melatonin should begin to rise naturally. For most people, a small dose of 1 milligram is sufficient to aid in restful sleep, but optimal dosing varies from person to person. Check with your doctor before taking any supplements.

References:

  1. Panda, S. (2018) The Circadian Code. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
  2. C.A. Thiass et al., “Transkingdom Control of Microbiota Diurnal Oscillations” Cell 159, no. 3(2014): 514-29.