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Beating Jet Lag: How the Latest Research Might Help

By altering when you eat and doing some work ahead of time, it’s possible to lessen the effects of jet leg and other 'circadian rhythm' disorders.

Libby Godlove is a collector of airline miles. As director of supply chain and logistics for an international corporation, she travels weekly for both work and pleasure, frequently hopping time zones.

All that travel, combined with a busy work schedule, makes Godlove a prime candidate for a circadian rhythm disorder.

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The Cleveland Clinic defines circadian rhythm disorders as, “disruptions in a person’s circadian rhythm — a name given to the ‘internal body clock’ that regulates the (approximately) 24-hour cycle of biological processes in animals and plants … The key feature of circadian rhythm disorders is a continuous or occasional disruption of sleep patterns.”

These disorders can happen as a result of a malfunction of the internal body clock, as is the case with narcolepsy, or as the result of external factors contributing to erratic sleep timing. This is the case with shift work disorder and the most common circadian rhythm disorder: jet lag.

For those who struggle with circadian rhythm disorders, that disruption of sleep patterns can result in both insomnia and excessive sleepiness, as well as social impairment and struggles completing daily tasks.

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But what can a person like Godlove do to combat those issues if their sleep pattern is continuously being interrupted?

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Altering your internal ‘body clock’ with food

That’s a question two recent reports aim to answer. The first, released from the University of Surrey, explores the impact of delaying meals in order to alleviate the symptoms of jet lag and shift work. In what is being touted as the first human study of its kind, Dr. Jonathan Johnston and Dr. Sophie Wehrens attempted to alter mealtimes for test subjects in order to see if doing so could reset body clocks.

The results were promising, indicating that mealtimes do synchronize internal clocks and can impact the flow of blood sugar concentration. These delays did not affect insulin levels, and may be the key to addressing jet lag and shift work concerns.

Healthline spoke to Miranda Willetts, a registered dietitian and wellness coach, about the latest findings. She was intrigued, but was also quick to point to issues within the study. “The sample size and population in this study are limited [10 young, healthy men], so it’s hard to say whether or not timed meals might actually help in practice. Not to mention, the individual would have to eat three isocaloric meals that contained identical macronutrients and were perfectly timed. These are not easy conditions to execute in the real-word.”

For her part, Godlove told Healthline she could see how meal timing could be impactful. “I typically have breakfast early in the morning Central time before going to the airport. On travel days, I might not then get lunch until 3 p.m. CST. At this point I am in a food emergency and typically make poor choices in my selection because I’m in an unfamiliar location and pressed for time once I land. I find this study really interesting, and it makes me want to be more aware of my scheduled meals while on the road. It would take some planning to make it work, but I do think it’s possible.”

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Advanced preparation to reset circadian rhythm

Perfectly timing meals isn’t the only way to possibly limit the symptoms of a circadian rhythm disorder, though. The second report to be released recently acknowledges that there is no way to completely eliminate jet lag, but there are things people can do to reduce the effects. A few items on that list include:

  • taking low dose (.5 mg) melatonin supplements
  • taking sleep medications used on arrival for three consecutive nights, starting with the first night of sleep after travel
  • anticipating the time change and slowly shifting your own routine around that change (getting up later and going to bed earlier, for instance) in the days leading up to travel
  • avoiding alcohol and caffeine at least three to four hours before bedtime

The goal in avoiding jet lag, it would seem, is acclimating yourself to the new time zone as early as possible. Sometimes even days before you leave. This does tie into the potential benefit of timed meals, as well. If we can adjust our body’s expectation of when food will arrive, perhaps we can convince our bodies to accept the newest time zone sooner.

While jet lag and shift work disorder aren’t the only circadian rhythm disorders, they are the most common. And this latest research suggests that while completely avoiding them might not be possible, reducing the risks and getting your body adjusted to a new time zone may not be as difficult as once believed.

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Of course, Healthline had to follow up with Willetts with one simple question. How should someone struggling with a circadian rhythm disorder process this newest information?

This is what she had to say: “If someone had a circadian rhythm disorder, I’d recommend working with a registered dietitian to create, and experiment with, a realistic plan for meal timing that takes some of the findings from this study into consideration.”

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