The Research Behind Jet Lag and Sleep While Traveling

While developing our latest performance nutrition product, Momentous Sleep, one of the most common things we heard from our athletes and coaches is that they struggle most with their sleep when traveling. This doesn’t merely apply to professional athlete competitors, but to anyone who is flying for work or even vacation. In this piece, we’ll take a look at some evidence-backed techniques you can try to tame jet lag and sort out your sleep during and after air travel or a long road trip. 

Fast to Reset

We often talk about our “circadian rhythm” as if it’s a singular thing, but in reality, the way your body establishes regular sleep-wake, digestive, and other cycles is through the stimuli we subject ourselves to. This means that we can change our outputs by altering our inputs. When it comes to travel, we’re changing not only when we go to bed and get up (typically the main factor that you think about when flying), but also shaking up our mealtimes. Let’s say you typically eat breakfast at 7 AM at your home in Denver, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6 PM. Well, when you fly to London, you’re swapping Mountain Time for Greenwich Mean Time, which means your regular breakfast time is 2 PM there, lunchtime is the equivalent of 7 PM, and dinnertime would be 1 AM. 

This is just one of the complicating factors. The second is that when you arrive at your destination, you’ll find that Londoners are taking their three main meals at completely different times of day to what your body is used to. It’s not enough for your phone to auto-adjust its time or for you to wind your watch forward seven hours to account for the time zone difference, as your food clock will still be stuck on what it’s used to back in Colorado. 

In the late 1970s, a team of researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory were asked by the American military to figure out a way to help soldiers quickly overcome jet lag so they were more ready to perform optimally when deployed overseas without a long adjustment period. They found that one of the main factors in resetting soldiers’ main body clock was for them not to eat for 18 to 24 hours. The resulting protocol was quickly adopted by the US Army, Navy, and Air Force, and when President Ronald Reagan tried it, he was so impressed that he started doing it every time he traveled.¹

In a later update, the Argonne Institute team suggested starting a fasting-feasting protocol four days before departure. On day one, feast on a high-protein breakfast and lunch and have a high-carbohydrate dinner. For day two, have only light meals like soups, salads, and fruit. On the third day, repeat day one’s eating pattern. Then do an 18 to 24 hour fast on day four, breaking it at your destination’s breakfast time. A study published in Military Medicine validated the effectiveness of this approach in restoring normal sleep while traveling.²

See the Light

Another way to tweak your chronobiology to overcome the sleep deprivation that’s a hallmark of jet lag is to expose your eyes to natural light at certain times of day, and to restrict outdoor time or wear sunglasses at others. The simplest way to deploy this once you reach the arrivals terminal at your destination is to get some sunlight in the morning and avoid it (along with caffeine) in the evening. But the latest research shows that you can get ahead of the jet lag-beating game with light therapy before you even pack your suitcase. 

A study conducted by a team from Stanford University and published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation found that exposure to flashing lights at certain times of the evening can help shift your sleep-wake cycle by up to two hours, versus a 36 minute change triggered by continuous light at the same times.³ The Lumos Smart Sleep Mask can provide such quick bursts of light at just the right intervals, removing the guesswork. The Stanford study showed that pre-travel light therapy can work even while you’re asleep, removing one more to-do from your pre-flight checklist.

Micro-dose with Melatonin

It’s tempting to grab a drink at the airport bar or to take advantage of those Southwest Airlines coupons on the plane, but almost every sleep expert advises against it. While the alcohol might well make you feel drowsy, it can also cause a “rebound” effect – i.e. a period of wakefulness – partway through your mid-flight nap, and also interfere with deep, restorative sleep. That is why some people can snooze on the plane but get to their destination feeling more groggy than refreshed. 

A better choice is to use a natural supplement that doesn’t have such side effects. There’s plenty of research to indicate that taking melatonin can help deliver longer and better quality sleep and help overcome the disruptive impact of jet lag. A comprehensive review of the scientific literature by two British researchers found that between 0.5 and 5mg of melatonin close to what your bedtime will be at your destination can help reset your sleep-wake cycle and help avoid sleep disruption. They found that such melatonin micro-dosing was particularly effective when crossing five or more time zones, and was also beneficial for those travelers who traversed two to four zones.⁴ The 3mg of melatonin found in Momentous Sleep is right in the sweet spot of the range recommended by this review, and the product also provides wild jujube seed extract and Magtein® (Magnesium L-threonate), both of which have been shown to promote restful sleep. 

Use Technology Purposefully

Typically, it’s best to avoid screens before bedtime because the blue light can delay sleep onset, increase the frequency and duration of wakefulness during the night, and compromise the quality of your sleep. But there is an exception to this rule: sleep apps that take travel into account and provide beneficial protocols. Timeshifter is one such app. You plug in where you live and where you’re headed, and it not only prescribes sleep and wake times to help your body overcome jet lag, but also provides timeframes for when to take in and avoid caffeine, and when to seek sunlight. One of the best features is that you can start to make adjustments before you depart so you’re being proactive and not merely trying to sort out your circadian rhythms once they’ve already been thrown off by crossing time zones. 

If you follow these three steps, you’ll likely overcome jet lag faster so you can enjoy your next vacation more if you’re traveling for pleasure, and perform your best if you have to compete or work. Check out this article to see how Minnesota Vikings All-Pro tight end Kyle Rudolph gets a good sleep after late games, the tweaks endurance stars Ben and Sarah True have made to their evening routine, and how coach Jamal Liggin comes down after nighttime workouts. 

Resources:

1 – Jane E. Brody, “The Jet Lag Diet,” The New York Times, May 22, 1983, available online at https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/22/travel/the-jet-lag-diet.html.

2 – NC Reynolds and R Montgomery, “Using the Argonne Diet in Jet Lag Prevention: Deployment of Troops Across Nine Time Zones,” Military Medicine, 2002, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12099077.

3 – Raymond P. Najjar and Jamie M. Zeitzer, “Temporal Integration of Light Flashes by the Human Circadian System,” February 8, 2016, Journal of Clinical Investigation, available online at https://www.jci.org/articles/view/82306.

4 – A Herxheimer and KJ Petrie, “Melatonin for the Prevention of Jet Lag,” Cochrane Database Systematic Review, 2002, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12076414.

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