Yesterday we flew back to Portland. I sat next to a couple that operated with different travel methods than our family. I can't begin to guess their thinking, yet I can tell you that it was quite the opposite of what I've learned if they were attempting to avoid jet lag. They split 10 Miller Lites between the two of them and 3 cups of coffee each on a 4:45 minute flight from ATL to PDX. No doubt the numbing effect was in play as the man passed out, spilled one beer on his tray and himself, and was slurring his speech by the time we hit our descent. I'm not here to judge this couple's behavior. I'm here to tell you what is ideal for combating the effects of cross-country travel and jet lag.
Our bodies' circadian rhythms are heavily affected when shifting through multiple time zones quickly. The term circadian combines two Latin words, circa (approximate) and dies (day), indicating approximately "one day" Jet lag is truly a sleep-wake disorder for our circadian clocks dictated on a 24-hour cycle. It's vital to protect our body's natural biological clock for our metabolic health and our risk for cancer.1 2
Here are my favorite methods to utilize when traveling by plane across time zones.
Light management. Avoid blue light and consume natural light. Our clocks tie directly to melatonin, the sleep hormone. Melatonin is secreted by our pineal gland, telling our brain to power down for rest. It's quickly suppressed by bright light. This is why I try and avoid screen time at night and actively use my blue-light-blocking glasses. In contrast, getting natural light in the AM helps anchor our bodies (and cells) to our new cycle. Taking a melatonin supplement can be an option, though I always prefer natural methods before leaning into a supplemental.3
Shift your sleep time ahead of travel, and ease into the new time zone. As the video I've linked below states, we can naturally shift our clocks by 1 to 2 hours. To take advantage of this skill and ease into our new time zone, we need to adjust our sleep time based on the time zone we are traveling to by one hour per day until we are synced to the new 'clock' and the sun. I love blackout curtains in hotel rooms because it's easy for me to shift sleep by getting my space as dark as possible regardless of sunlight.
Temperature regulation can play a crucial role in healthy sleep.4 I've talked about cold exposure and showering for health previously, though I haven't highlighted temperature’s role in our sleep cycle. You might be surprised to learn that the ideal sleep temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. The bottom line is that our body cools as it readies for sleep and warms as we produce energy for wakefulness. This may sound contradictory whether you've been in a cold Casino where they attempt to keep you alert to help you gamble more or a warm bath that enables you to ease into sleep. The reason the above scenarios work is because they produce the opposite effect on the body. Our core temperature adjusts to our external temps. I like taking a warm bath or having a sauna session an hour or two before bed to prime my body for an ideal cycle of sleep.
Meal timing is a potent control factor of our body's circadian rhythms. We can strategically avoid food by using intermittent fasting to lessen the impact on our circadian rhythms.5 Additionally, I practice intentional hydration due to the low humidity on a plane, drinking plenty of water (this trip, I brought LMNT), and (unlike my traveling neighbors) avoid coffee and alcohol as it's a diuretic. As a bonus, when I am ready to eat, I try and consume leafy greens and a little bit of dark chocolate. The fiber-rich greens aid in deep wave sleep and the flavonoids in dark chocolate may help with cognitive functioning and restfulness.6
Here's a video on jet lag and shifting sleep times. 📺