Anyone who has traveled across multiple time zones has undoubtedly experienced jet lag. The extreme daytime fatigue and feeling wired at night can wreak havoc on your body and brain, especially when you’re unfamiliar with how jet lag works and feel unprepared for it.
Fortunately, jet lag is health scenario that you can prepare for and should. In this video, we’re going to discuss:
- What is jet lag?
- How it affects physical and cognitive performance?
- What you can do to best avoid it?
- And how you can overcome it quickly.
We’re going to talk about light exposure, naps, caffeine, nutrition and more.
It’s time to get performance ready. Lets dive in.
Jet Lag – Symptoms and Causes
Jet lag is a recognized sleep disorder that is experienced after rapid travel across multiple time zones (also known as transmeridian travel). The American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines jet lag as a syndrome involving insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness following travel across at least 2 time zones.
The symptoms that are most common include:
- Daytime fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating or functioning at your usual level
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Moodiness and agitation
- Disturbed sleep
- Just generally not feeling well
These symptoms happen because your body’s circadian rhythm is no longer being synchronized to the local time. The internal sleep-wake cycle is out of phase with the local light-dark cycle, causing drowsiness or arousal at “inappropriate” times.
For example, if you leave New York on a flight at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, and arrive in Paris at 7:00 a.m. Wednesday, your internal clock still thinks it’s 1:00 a.m. That means you’re ready for bed just as everyone around you in Paris is waking up.
Your sleep schedule is primarily modulated by exposure to light and secretion of melatonin, which is secreted in the pineal gland for 10-12 hours in the evening and helps to induce sleep. Light inhibits secretion of melatonin and stimulates arousal. This is controlled by the “master clock” in your brain that uses light exposure to coordinate all the workings of organs. Interestingly enough, your organs also operate on their own clocks, which means this desynchronization affects more than just sleep, but also body temperature, blood pressure, hormone regulation, hunger levels and hunger times.
Generally speaking, jet lag symptoms usually persists for 1 day for each time zone crossed until the body realigns its circadian clock. Symptoms are likely to get worse or last longer the more time zones that you’ve crossed.
Yet not all travel is created equal.
Traveling west is easier on our body than traveling east. For example, if you travel west across nine time zones, it would take approximately 8 days to recover. However, if you cross nine time zones going east, the recovery would take more than 13 days.
This happens because your circadian rhythm runs on a slightly longer than 24-hour cycle. It’s about 24 hours and 15 minutes to be exact and your body has an easier time lengthening the day versus shortening it.
What kind of sleeper you are may also affect how severe jet lag symptoms are for you. If you’re a morning-type person that prefers to wake up early, you may have less difficulty flying eastward, while “evening-type people,” who prefer to wake up late, have less difficulty flying westward (3)
High performers with rigid sleeping habits may also experience greater symptoms than those who are more flexible with sleep. Being so dependent on your routine, means you’re going to have a harder time adjusting and must really plan ahead.
How Jet Lag Affects Physical Performance?
So let’s see how jet lag actually affects physical performance?
Jet lag has been shown to cause a decrease in:
- Peak muscle force
- Anaerobic power output
- Vertical jump
- Heart rate variability
- Muscle recovery
In a study by Northwestern University, researchers looked at Major League Baseball data from more than 40,000 games over the course of 20 years. What they found was that traveling more than two time zones affected player performance in subtle but detectable ways. During games where a team traveled from West-East, there was a calculable difference in hitting, running, and pitching performance.
When it comes to sports, west coast teams consistently beat east coast teams during evening games.
Cognitively, jet lag has a profound impact. Mood and complex mental performance tasks deteriorate almost immediately with sudden changes in circadian rhythm. Travelers will experience a general loss of motivation, mental clouding and feelings of agitation. Which coincides with an increase in cortisol levels after long flights. It’s even been known to cause lapses in memory and learning because of possible hippocampal deficits.
What is Social Jet Lag?
You may have heard of the term social jet lag. It shouldn’t be confused with “standard” jet lag. Social jet lag is not caused by traveling. It is actually a more severe type of sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s circadian rhythm is not in sync with our normal social time. For instance, time that should traditionally be spent being active or sleeping does not align with the biological clock of the affected person. People who are struggling with this particular condition actually have delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD) or advanced sleep-wake phase disorder (ASWPD). Symptoms of these disorders are similar to jet lag. The patients regularly feel tired, sleepy, and have problems with focusing. Social jet lag can also happen to people who work almost every day of the week.
Jet Lag Prevention Tips
Now you can’t avoid jet lag completely, but you can make things easier on yourself by not fighting it.
The best ways to do this are typically behavioral versus pharmacological, and when done correctly can save you precious time and energy at your new destination.
- As soon as you can, begin shifting your circadian rhythm to the new destination. You can start this process in the days leading up to your trip through a combination of timed sleep, light exposure, caffeine intake, and meals. To do this, simply look at the time difference between your home and where you’re traveling to and begin shifting your daily activities toward it.
- Since light is the primary cue for your internal body clocks, you want to be aware of when you’re getting exposure to bright light and for how long. You can advance your body clock with bright light exposure in the morning, which is useful for eastward travel, while exposure in the late evening will delay it, which is useful for westward travel.
- This includes the light from your devices too. You’ll want restrict blue light exposure at night by using f.lux on your computer, wearing blue blocking glasses, using night mode on your cell phone.
- Does figuring this out sound like a lot to do? Outsource the decision making with jet lag busting apps.Our favorite is Timeshifter App. Developed by a Harvard professor, this app helps elite athletes, CEOs and even astronauts combat jet lag through a personalized algorithm. You’ll receive a custom plan to time your sleep, caffeine intake, naps, and light exposure.
- While in the air, live according to the new time zone. If you should be sleeping during your flight to arrive in the morning, then ignore movies and entertainment, and just sleep as much as you can. If you will arrive in the evening and should stay awake while traveling, make sure you have activities, entertainment, caffeine, etc., to keep yourself awake during the flight.
- Although it may be tempting to grab an energy drink or coffee before your flight, it’s typically recommended to avoid stimulating unless it’s in the morning of your final destination. Once you’ve arrived, caffeine may be a helpful way to increase alertness and physical performance, but just be careful of how much you consume and when. Caffeine after 2 PM will interfere with sleep no matter what, but may be even more severe for those experiencing jet lag. Again, do what makes sense for your destination not for how your body feels.
- Another strategy is the correct and careful use of melatonin. Doses of 0.3 – 1 mg will produce an effect closest to natural melatonin spikes. For more information about this sleep supplement, check out our other videos.
- A more advanced tip is to consider fasting. New research suggests that not eating can help reset your body’s circadian rhythm, because the timing and content of meals does influence your internal clocks. By fasting, you can reboot the feeding cycle and help decrease the time warp. Overall, though, be sure to drink plenty of fresh water and eat healthy meals to keep your gut, body and mind working well.
- Strategic napping has also been discussed as a potential method to mitigate the symptoms of jet lag. Long naps during times when you should be alert may interfere with adaption to the new time zone. It’s generally recommended to nap during the nighttime in your new destination or in the morning. Power naps about 20 minutes long may help decrease daytime sleepiness, just be careful they’re not timed too close to when you should be going to bed.
- If you’re able to, try traveling a few days prior to a competition, race, big meeting or event. This will give you time to adjust before needing to be performance ready. If you need to train or go into performance-mode immediately, schedule around your sleep-wake cycle to take advantage of the jet lag. If you’re traveling west, you’ll probably wake up extra early, so get your training and meetings in early. If you’re traveling east, you’ll probably be more wired at night, so plan events for later in the evening.
As mentioned, it’s not possible to totally beat jet lag, especially with large time differences, but with proper preparation you can minimize it’s effects and even use it to your advantage.
If you find this video useful, share it with someone who is planning a long distance trip soon and tell us what you think in the comment section below.
Also, check out the references used to create this article.
Kelly is a Performance Sleep Coach who works with athletes, entrepreneurs, and people looking to optimize their rest for ultimate energy and recovery. With a background in holistic health and wellness, she blends ancient principles with modern sleep science to help her clients overcome insomnia, daytime fatigue, and disturbed sleep.