How to beat jet-lag

By Dr Tara Swart

Tips for fast recovery when travelling accross time zones.

It is generally accepted that taking a holiday is good for the brain. It presents us with an opportunity to rest and recalibrate, improving our capacity for creative thinking and giving us a chance to go on a digital detox from our smartphones, laptops and tablets.

However the effect of long-haul flying on the brain can be extremely disruptive and can leave those who are particularly badly affected by jet-lag unable to work effectively for days after getting off the plane. In research carried out by the University of California, Berkeley, acute disruption of circadian rhythms (our biological clock) has been shown to cause memory and learning problems as well as long-term changes in brain anatomy, long after travellers have returned to their regular schedule.  New neurons in the hippocampus – the part of the brain which contributes to the processing of memory – have been shown to be fewer in subjects who experienced jet-lag.

So, the implications for the brain from long-distance travel are clear, and it is something we should all think about when travelling. After all, most of us are paid to use our brain so keeping this organ in peak condition is of universal benefit.

There are some simple things we can do to combat the effects of jet-lag both on and off the plane. Try adjusting your sleep routine to the local time zone as quickly as possible, by choosing optimal travel times that allow your eyes to observe the transition from light to dark after arrival at your destination. Our internal body clock is controlled by the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, which is released by the pineal gland into our bloodstream when it gets dark. Restricting exposure to blue light, which mimics natural daylight, at certain times helps the body to overcome the desynchronisation it experiences when moving between time zones.

Shifting your internal rhythms before you set off can also help to reset the circadian cycle earlier in time. Depending on whether you are flying east or west, exposure to additional light in the morning or afternoon a number of days before the journey will help the body to make the necessary adjustments. Use of prescribed sleeping tablets for a maximum of 2 days either side of a trip involving more than a 4-hour time difference may be acceptable to your GP, and melatonin or drowsy anti-histamines may also be of use to some people.

During the journey, fasting over the flight until breakfast time in the new time-zone will help to un-stick and then re-anchor the body’s rhythms, and drinking at least 500ml of water for every 15kg of body weight will help to limit the particularly dehydrating effects of high altitude.

Upon arrival, aerobic exercise is a great way to wake up the body and boost mental performance, and exposure to as much daylight as possible during the day should be encouraged.

It is also important to get back into a cycle of good quality sleep as soon as possible, so the cleaning of the glymphatic system that takes place whilst we are asleep can resume at full capacity. To do this, avoid alcohol before bed as it does not induce a natural sleep that allows your body to recover. If you are a coffee drinker, avoid it after 2pm to mitigate its impact on the quality of your sleep and try to limit your use of blue light-emitting devices, like smartphones, an hour or so before bed; they trick the pineal gland into thinking it is day time and so inhibit melatonin production.

Jet-lag has the ability to ruin a holiday or business trip, but a basic understanding of what happens to our brains when we travel can help us to overcome these irritating side effects and make the most of exploring new places around the world. Business travel can, in particular, make us feel lonely, so write a list of ten things you are grateful for before you go to sleep. It’s a good mindfulness practice to re-frame your mindset.

Dr Tara Swart is a renowned neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor and award-winning author. 

This article featured in Skyways Magazine.