I love to travel. Heck, don’t most people? Especially if it means going somewhere warm during the fall and winter seasons in the Pacific Northwest. Not only that, but it keeps life interesting and satisfies you inner wonder junkie.
As great as traveling is for the mind, however, it can take a physical toll on one’s body. Sitting for many hours in transit is incongruous with our biological yearning to move. Crossing time zones throws off our bodies’ circadian rhythms.
Recent research has shed light on these internal clocks, linking them to everything from weight gain to cancer risk. Eating on the road also presents its own set of health problems.
So how can we solve the cognitive consequences of jet lag?
Our brains sit in a dark cavity – with our eyes as its only light source to the outside world. That said, the light we see is a major modulator of many processes that not only go on in our brains, but our entire body. When you arrive at your destination after a long day (or days) or traveling, step outside and look at the sky without sunglasses – not directly at the sun, but towards the sky. Which even on a cloudy day, can be brighter than any indoor lighting. The following day, do the same thing as soon as you wake up. This practice of exposing your body to bright, natural light in a new time zone will help to anchor your body’s 24-hour cycle.
Research has shown that taking melatonin (3-5 milligrams) 30 minutes before sleep can significantly improve jet lag. Melatonin is a hormone released from your pineal gland that tells your brain, and thus your body, when it’s time to wind down. However, this naturally secreted hormone can easily be suppressed by bright light, which is why you should minimize exposure to glaring screens for at least an hour before you go to bed (or don a pair of blue-light blocking glasses). Ensure to the best of your ability that your hotel room is as dark as possible, as even the dimmest of light creeping in from the side of the curtains while sleeping can negatively affect your cognitive function. Utilizing sleeping masks can also be of consideration.
Naturally, the body prefers cooler temperatures to sleep. In fact, your body temperature drops during sleep. Aside from changing the thermostat on the air conditioner in your hotel room, taking a warm bath or shower and then stepping out into a cooler room tricks the body into a sleepier state.
A shower can help anchor the body’s circadian clock in the daytime as well. This can help you to feel more alert when your body is in Tokyo but your brain is in Seattle. Taking a shower in the coldest water temperature you can get in the morning could, in theory, trigger a hormonal response akin to what normally occurs when you wake up.
Meal timing may also be a powerful modulator of our body’s internal clock. When we know that our schedules are going to be suddenly thrown off by travel, we can utilize intermittent fasting (strategically avoiding food) to soften the blow to our circadian rhythm. Avoiding food and caffeine during long flights (but drinking lots of water), until eating a large breakfast with a cup or two of coffee the morning after you arrive (or just upon arrival, if you arrive in the morning) has been shown to significantly reduce jet lag.
What you eat may also matter. New studies have shown that diets lower in carbohydrates and higher in dietary fiber from vegetables have been associated with more time spent in slow wave sleep. And chocolate fans, finally rejoice: after partial sleep deprivation, eating flavonol-rich dark chocolate (at least 85% cacao content or above) was shown to correct some of the cognitive problems associated with sleep loss. Perhaps that’s why hotels put chocolates squares on our pillows.
If you’ve got any other tried-and-true jet-lag hacking strategies, share them with us in the comments below!