How to beat jet lag according to science

Our bodies were not designed to travel long distances at high speeds, but that's no reason to let it ruin your holiday.

Meryl D'Souza October 18, 2016

That holiday you took over the long weekend was amazing, wasn’t it? Best holiday ever. Of course, it would have been better if you weren’t so tired the first couple of days and completely disorientated when you returned back to normal life.

The jet lag struggle is very real and it gets to the best of us, if not all. For the uninitiated, jet lag is a physiological condition which stems from alterations to the body's circadian rhythms – our internal body clock. 

Our respective circadian rhythms according to environmental time and light levels – in general adults strongest sleep drive is between 2am and 4am. When we travel across time zones, our circadian clock falls out of sync with the local time and need readjusting.

It gets worse when travelling east

Research shows that our body clocks adjust themselves quicker when travelling west as opposed to east. That’s because when we fly west we have to stay up longer. Doing that is a whole lot easier than going to bed earlier, which is a requirement when we fly east. Our smartphones can take a chunk of the blame for this. 

Researchers found that while going west a person crossing three time zones would fully adjust in a little less than four days, six time zones in about six days and nine time zones in about eight days.

However, the cycles aren’t as proportional when going east. A person going east by three time zones would need at least four days to recover, six time zones would need about eight days and nine would need more than twelve days of recovery.

How to beat jet lag

We’re not talking about your typical jet lag tips like popping melatonin pills to help you fall into a slumber or training your body to switch sleep schedules which can cut into social time.

New research shows that the main clock of the circadian system works in conjunction with the other clocks present in organs like the stomach, liver and lungs. Therefore by adjusting your meals to eating at local time, you can lessen jet lag.

To support this theory, Cristina Ruscitto, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey, study the jet lag symptoms of 60 flight attendants who were working a flight with a time change of at least four hours.

A day before the trip, all sixty were assigned to one of two groups. The first group was told to eat meals on a “regular” schedule for the two days after their flight. They were free to choose how to schedule those meals but were instructed to plan out that schedule ahead of time. The second group was told to eat however they typically would in the two days following their trip. 

On the second day after their flights, everyone took tests to measure alertness and answered questions about how jet lagged they felt. Though there were not huge differences in alertness scores between the two groups, the group that stuck to regular meals reported feeling significantly less jet lagged than the other group.

Now we understand that it’s a very short sample, but we’re willing to bet you’d do it to make your holiday – and even your return from holiday period – less painful. As you should. No one wants their holiday spoiled by bad sleep.