Nauseated, exhausted, disoriented, confused: Not the vibe of a glamorous jet-setter. Jet lag can be a serious downer in the first few days of your big international trip. Solution: Try these diet and exercise tips to reduce the severity and duration of your symptoms.
What is jet lag?
Have you ever taken a long flight for an awesome, much-anticipated trip -- only to arrive feeling fatigued, weak, forgetful, or just generally awful?
I travel a fair amount to speak at health and fitness conferences, and for the longest time this described me for the first two or three days of a given journey.
Traveling across time zones can cause confusion in the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that regulates the circadian rhythm regulating your hormone production, body temperature, sleep patterns, and appetite.
The result: jet lag, a collection of nasty symptoms that may include...
- loss of appetite
- reduced concentration
- gastrointestinal distress
- joint swelling and stiffness
- muscle pain and stiffness
Interestingly, traveling east is more difficult on the body than traveling west. It seems to be easier for us to delay our internal clocks than to speed them up.
Jet lag is common -- even among seasoned jet setters (the hypothalamus, as you can imagine, evolved long before global air travel). In a 1993 survey of international flight attendants, nine out of 10 reported tiredness, lack of energy and motivation, and disrupted sleep; 70 percent had problems with the ear, nose, or throat.
Jet lag may be a fact of modern life, but I just wasn't that into it. So I did some research, developed some strategies, and now employ research-based diet and exercise tricks that help me feel better (and get to work) faster.
What you eat (or, as you'll see, what you don't eat) can affect the severity of your jet lag-induced malaise.
The biggest diet-related strategy? Fasting.
A 2002 study of National Guard personnel deployed across nine time zones tested a fasting technique called the Argonne diet protocol, in which air travelers alternately feast and fast for a few days leading up to their flight to detach their internal clocks from the home time zone (I tried out a simplified version of the plan, and now I use it all the time).
Study subjects who followed the Argonne fast were 7.5 times less likely to experience jet lag upon deployment; those who repeated the fast for their trip back to the U.S. were 16.2 times less likely!
Another thing to keep in mind at mealtimes in the days leading up to and following your flight: Avoid alcohol, which can cause dehydration, and caffeine, which itself can throw off your circadian rhythm.
Working out may strengthen the responsiveness of our circadian rhythm by supporting our bodies' production of proteins that keep our organs in sync -- helping us stay healthy and feeling good.
How to use movement as a tool to fight jet lag?
First, try to get some high-intensity exercise (ideally at your usual workout time) the day of your flight. This may minimize travel-related stress, which can exacerbate jet lag symptoms.
Then, once in your new time zone, exercise at the same time you typically do at home -- so an 8 a.m. run in L.A. becomes an 8 a.m. run London time. Maintaining this consistency seems to ward off miserable jet lag symptoms by helping our muscles and peripheral tissues synchronize with the new time zone.
But do whatever feels best. Too tired for your usual high-intensity session? Try a light body weight workout, a walk, or some stretching exercises.
Above all: Try to do it outdoors, during daylight hours. The most powerful regulator of our internal biological clocks, light -- especially when combined with movement -- helps minimize jet lag by telling the body it's time to be awake.
Certain pills, when taken correctly, may mitigate the annoying effects of jet lag.
This hormone plays a key role in controlling the internal clock that helps regulate when we sleep and wake. A gland in the brain produces it when we're exposed to darkness to help us get sleepy.
The flip side: Melatonin is suppressed by bright light, meaning that crossing time zones (and getting light exposure when we'd normally be sleeping) can really screw with our rhythm and, yes, make us feel terrible.
Melatonin supplements may help -- but dose timing is critical. Wait until you arrive at your new time zone, then aim to take it in the afternoon, local time. In one study, this technique combined with a gradually advancing sleep schedule and light exposure upon waking helped participants gain an extra hour each day, significantly curtailing jet lag.
How much, for how long? Three milligrams about an hour before bedtime for three consecutive nights should do it.
Derived from tree bark and other natural sources, pycnogenol may ward off symptoms by helping to control swelling throughout the body.
In one 2008 study, subjects who took 50 mg of pycnogenol three times daily for a week starting two days before their trip experienced jet lag symptoms for just only about 18 hours -- significantly less than the nearly 40 hours suffered by a control group. They also experienced fewer jet lag induced problems with short-term memory, heart function, blood pressure and fatigue.
Before you set off, it's not a bad idea to try and adjust your wake and sleep cycle to match your destination's time zone as closely as possible.
This involves waking up and going to bed one hour earlier or later (depending on the direction you're traveling) progressively for three days. This will help ensure the success of the strategies I laid out here.
(And check out Jet Lag Rooster; it's an app that can help determine your schedule.)
Want help finding the best exercise, eating, and lifestyle advice for you? Download these free starter kits for men and women:
About the author
John Berardi, Ph.D. is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist and Equinox.
Dr. Berardi was recently selected as one of the 20 smartest coaches in the world by livestrong.com, the internet's most popular fitness site.
In the last five years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped over 30,000 people improve their eating, lose weight, and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program.
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