Traveling the world weaves color and energy into life. Jet lag can disrupt the colorful, exhilarating adventure.
Every long-haul traveler is familiar with the aggravating early morning wake-ups or struggles to fall asleep in a new a time zone, but jet lag symptoms can extend beyond sleep disturbances. It’s not uncommon for those experiencing jet lag to contend with feelings of wooziness, nausea and fatigue.
Kevin Sprouse, the head of medicine for EF Education First Pro Cycling, helps our riders mitigate the impact of jet lag, and now he hopes to do the same for you.
What is jet lag?
From a medical standpoint, we actually don’t know exactly what jet lag is it, exactly what is going on. We only know certain components of it. Most symptoms seemed to be caused by the alteration in circadian rhythm.
“People experiencing jet lag report nausea, body aches, feeling woozy, lack of appetite, and big bursts of energy at weird times of day.”
-Dr. Kevin Sprouse
Can you explain what circadian rhythm is?
Circadian rhythm is a balance of hormones throughout the day. It’s like a dance, where some hormones are higher in the morning and some are higher at night, and it governs your wakefulness versus sleep cycles.
But those hormones do other things too, like control blood sugar and hunger and energy, and they are responsible for a wide range of body functions. So when you throw-off that whole balance, people feel fatigue. They may experience difficulty waking up and going to sleep. But also it’s almost like being sick. People experiencing jet lag report nausea, body aches, feeling woozy, lack of appetite, and big bursts of energy at weird times of day.
The hormonal system is such a delicate balance that any time you throw it off, the symptoms can be wide-reaching and fairly dramatic.
How long do the symptoms last for?
It’s somewhat individual, but the rule of thumb is for every time zone you cross, it takes a day to acclimate. So when I go from Eastern US to Europe it’s a six-hour difference, by that rule of thumb, by the sixth day I should be fairly well-acclimated.
What do you suggest riders do before they travel across several time zones?
Changing meal and sleep schedules to reflect the time at the new destination can be helpful. We’ll have the riders maybe three days before they travel go to bed at a time that’s closer to their destination.
So for me going from Eastern US to Europe I would start to go to bed sooner and sooner in my evening a few days before my flight to reflect the later time in Europe. I would also change my meal schedule to try to mirror that.
Then when you get to your destination if you happen to arrive between meals, say at 9:30am, the tendency is to want to have some breakfast, but it’s best to wait until lunchtime because that’s part of the hormonal rhythm as well.
It’s tempting to think of things in isolation but it’s all so tightly wound that you have to pay attention to all aspects of the cycle, so sleep, eating, light exposure etc.
Is there anything people can do on planes to avoid jet lag?
Fly business class. Ha! I try to get an aisle seat in the middle of the plane so my row mates can go out the other way if I’m asleep, and they don’t have to wake me up.
Alcohol across the board, jet lag or not, will disrupt sleep and will make for suboptimal sleep cycles and sleep patterns through the night. So definitely at a time when you are trying to acclimate and you want things to be going as well as possible you need to skip alcohol. This includes on the plane. There’s a tendency to think having a drink with dinner on the plane will help with sleep, but it’s actually counterproductive, it doesn’t help with restorative sleep.
I avoid sleeping tablets while I travel. I think the detriment to taking them outweighs the benefit. Having one night of poor sleep is not that big a deal. It can be uncomfortable, but from a health standpoint it’s not that much of a problem.
Rather than take sleeping pills, I take a supplement called melatonin. I usually take it on the flight at the bedtime of the destination of where I’m going. Then for the first three to five days when I arrive I’ll take it just before bedtime, and that helps to reset that circadian rhythm. It’s probably the most beneficial thing we know of for easing jet lag. It doesn’t cure it or fix it, but it definitely helps with the acclimation process. But with all these things, the response is quite personal. Some people say that melatonin works great. Others say it doesn’t work no matter how much they take.
Melatonin is something our bodies naturally produce, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s something our bodies naturally produce as we’re about to sleep, melatonin increases and cortisol decreases. But to purchase it in tablet form will, in some countries, require your doctor writing you a prescription.
The flip-side of your body producing melatonin is as you wake up your cortisol increases and that’s part of the process that wakes you up, it also releases sugar into your bloodstream. But imagine if that happens midday because your body isn’t yet on the new schedule, you experience a sharp increase in blood sugar or a sharp decrease in blood sugar when you don’t expect it. This can be what causes nausea and just general sensations of feeling unwell.
However if you look at a screen, for instance, just before wanting to sleep, the blue light will decrease the production of melatonin, so it will make it harder to sleep. So another thing to do is take a book instead of an iPad or watching a movie on the plane prior to the time you need to go to sleep. Read rather than have that blue light exposure, and that holds true for when you arrive at your destination, too. The first few nights, really any night actually, avoid blue-light exposure the two to three hours before bedtime.
“When I get to new timezones I go outside and go for a walk or go for a run. It’s the best medicine by far.”
-Dr. Kevin Sprouse
Does natural light play a role in the body determining when to increase/decrease those hormones?
For sure. We highly recommend that riders get out in the sun as soon as they get to their destination to help them adapt to the timezone change more quickly. When you can expose yourself to the natural sunlight and the cadence of that sunlight, you are exposing your body to the cues of the new time zone and the new circadian rhythm you’ll need. I think that’s one of the best things you can do, and personally when I get to new timezones I go outside and go for a walk or go for a run. It’s the best medicine by far.
If you’re waking up in the early hours of the morning, what do you advise the riders to do at that point?
Avoid light. The tendency when you wake up, and you can’t sleep is to check your phone, look at notifications, social media or even just check what time it is. That is really counterproductive. It stimulates the body to wake up.
People on the team are often sharing a room so it’s not as if they can click on a light and read or anything like that. But if you are in a room by yourself turning on a fairly dim, yellowish light, not the stark blue light that comes from an electronic device, just a normal light and reading for 10-15 minutes can be helpful.
If the mind starts going, which it often does, if you start to think, ‘Ah, I’ve got to do this, and this and this’ then a good trick is to write those things down so you don’t feel like you’re going to forget them — but write them on a piece of paper, not your phone!