I'm currently fighting the effects of jet lag after a brutal 21-hour international flight, and it's no picnic. However, I have plenty of experience
dealing with jet lag, which occurs when the body's circadian rhythm — its internal clock, which dictates when it feels awake and sleepy — is out of step with the rhythms of its environment. Jet lag can lead to serious lapses in memory, mental performance and physical skills, but the classic sign is sleep disturbance: waking up far earlier or far later than the normal time in your destination, and fighting sleepiness during the day. Many frequent fliers have their preferred remedies for jet lag, but do any of them actually work? I turned to science to find out.
Jet lag is a relatively new phenomenon; humans have only had the ability to travel quickly to radically different time zones since the
invention of long-distance air travel. Science is still understanding new things about the body's circadian rhythms and how they're controlled. It was only recently, for example, that humans found that each cell in the body has an internal clock, and that we have 'master clocks' in the brain and elsewhere that regulate them. Transforming the body's sleep-wake cycle after a shock like a long-haul flight is a difficult and lengthy process, and it's necessary to be ready for it to take a while. Some helpful methods, however, work more than others. Here are 21 remedies for jet lag — and the science behind how they're supposed to work.
Getting A Lot Of Sunshine
Melatonin is the world's great hope for adjusting to new time zones, but it's
not as powerful as it seems; it may bring on sleep more quickly by sending messages to the body that it's nighttime, but it doesn't work like a traditional sleeping pill that automatically sends you off to dreamland. Use with caution.
Getting a bit of exercise on the flight is a good idea to combat muscle stiffness and blood flow issues, but experts recommend
avoiding heavy exercise at your destination around the time you're supposed to be falling asleep, as it can increase your alertness and keep you awake.
Eating At The 'Correct' Times In Your New Time Zone
Eating is an important signal to the body about the correct times to feel awake and asleep, so even if you're not feeling hungry, try to have a little bit of food at breakfast, lunch and dinner times at your new destination to help yourself adjust.
Avoiding Alcohol & Caffeine
This one has the expert stamp of approval; alcohol might help you sleep on the plane, but
it'll increase your dehydration, while caffeine and other stimulants may interfere with your body's very confused jet lag responses.
The jury's still out on this.
Fasting for 16 hours before you arrive in a long-haul destination may, according to one study, help you adjust, but it's needs to be more widely tested. Avoiding food intake, even temporarily, can be detrimental to your body's energy levels, since we need food to function, so ask your doctor before attempting.
Lavender essential oils, VeryWell Health explains,
can improve sleep quality a bit because lavender's known to be a soothing scent, but it's not known whether it has any special powers for helping people on a jet lag schedule fall asleep.
Trying To Adjust Before You Leave
This is restricted by its practicality: Attempting to follow the rhythms of a new time zone before you leave the old one, complete with eating and sleeping times, can be tricky, and you're fighting against the daytime-nighttime schedule at your origin, which has a lot of influence over arousal and sleepiness.
Sleeping pills might seem like a cure-all, but they're
not actually recommended for adjusting to a new time zone, as taking them creates artificial sleeping conditions and drowsiness that can stop your body adjusting naturally.
Jet Lag Preparations Containing Cocculus
A few homeopathic preparations for jetlag
contain the herb cocculus, which has been shown to help sleep deprivation in rats, but it's still not proven to do anything significant to human sleep schedule adjustment.
For short trips, it's occasionally recommended that people
attempt to stick to their home schedule as much as possible — sleeping and eating as they always do — to help the readjustment when they return. This isn't always viable, though, particularly for business trips.
Building Up A Sleep Deficit Before You Leave
The idea behind this jet lag tip has to do with the same principle as
adjusting to your new time zone in advance. But trust me, this does not work; being massively sleepy when you arrive because you've avoided sleep for several days beforehand doesn't necessarily make your body more likely to crash. It may just mean you sleep little and then feel awful.
Eating Spicy Food To Stay Awake
Interestingly, CN Traveler reports that airline Qantas has attempted a jetlag-busting menu on long-haul flights, incorporating
spicy foods as part of breakfast meals to help stimulate the brain to stay awake. In theory, this makes sense, but it might not help you past those first few hours. Sleep bracelets that emit electro-magnetic currents have been recommended as celebrity favorites, but there's no evidence to suggest that the devices can help human sleep patterns.
Dried Cherries & Bananas
Small amounts of melatonin appear to be found in
both cherries and bananas, so they're a worthwhile snack — but it's worth remembering that you can't ingest a lot of melatonin from those foods, and they're not the equivalent of medication.
Jet lag isn't an issue of mind over matter. Meditation can help you cope with the consequences of jet lag, but not control it.
Professor Adrian Johnson explains to Headspace, "Meditation is a useful tool to help get your mind in the right place. When sleep evades you, it can help bring calm to the body and mind; conversely, when sleepiness invades, it helps you with the mindful acceptance that it will pass."
Napping For Longer Than 20 Minutes
If you're sleepy during the day when you're jet lagged, your body is attempting to go into a full eight- hour sleep cycle. Napping for more than 20 minutes leaves you
at risk of entering deep sleep, which not only stops you from adjusting properly — it'll also make you groggy and grumpy.
Not every jet lag remedy is a winner, but there is some science to back up the most tried and true ones. Safe travels.