A touring musician is no stranger to the pitfalls of air travel—cramped economy seating, lost and mishandled luggage, and perhaps one of the worst is the dreaded jet lag. Combating daytime fatigue and nighttime insomnia, in severe cases, it can take days to revert to a normal sleep schedule.
Scientists are beginning to understand more about how human circadian rhythms work. Their studies may eventually lead to therapeutic “cures” for jet lag. Researchers at the Salk Institute have found two receptors in the nuclei of human and mouse cells that control sleep and metabolic cycles.
Also, this year the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young for their research about biological clocks. Brian Crane, Cornell biochemist and a colleague of Young, broke down why people become jet lagged in the first place and possible solutions for weary travelers.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag is associated with physical symptoms, but on a molecular level, it’s your body struggling to adapt to the new day-night cycle wherever you’re staying. “In most of your cells there’s a molecular oscillator—a little clock that keeps track of time,” explains Crane. Your biological clock cannot be changed as simply as winding the hands to match the time zone. “The clocks in your eyes and brain adapt quickly, but they have to train your peripheral clocks—in your liver, intestines, and heart. So, you get jet lagged because different parts of your body think it’s different times of day.”
What can you do to fight jet lag?
While it is tempting to hop straight into bed after a long, exhausting flight, Crane advises you should adapt your biological clock as soon as possible and try to adjust to the new day-night cycle wherever you are. “In mammals, there’s a lot of feedback between physical activity and your clocks,” he says. He suggests being outside and active during the new “daytime” despite fatigue, as well as forming a new eating schedule. “If you’re jet lagged you feel hungry at odd times, you can reset your appetite hormones by eating at the right time for where you are, even if you’re not hungry.”
Crane suggests travelers should not stay awake late at night. This is not always feasible for musicians, but at least avoid caffeine or midnight Internet browsing. “Stay away from computer screens at night. [Eyes] are typically blue light sensitive. Computer screens, which contain a lot of blue light, are good at delaying your clock,” he says.
While ditching screens before bed is the best option, there are apps that can control the amount of blue and white light your devices emit. In addition, light therapy boxes, often used to combat Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD), are effective solutions to getting daytime light exposure, if you cannot get outside during the day. This can impact the body and mind beyond resetting clocks. “Mammals have really strong rhythms. If we’re out of whack with when we eat and when we sleep, it has big ramifications on our wellbeing,” Crane notes. “Getting people on a good day-night cycle where they see light at the right times and reset their rhythms has shown to be useful for proper mental health.”
There are also options available for those interested in over the counter treatments for their jet lag issues. Widely available, Melatonin—the hormone that contributes to sleep—has varying success from person to person. Melatonin’s effect on the body is “more of a downstream thing” Crane describes. “The central clocks in the brain cause the pineal gland to release melatonin and then the melatonin entrains the peripheral clocks.”
Advancements are on the horizon. Melatonin agnates—artificial compounds that bind to the melatonin receptors better than melatonin does, therefore making the compounds more effective than melatonin—are in clinical trials according to Crane.
Why is it harder to recover from flights traveling east?
This is a puzzling effect of flying. Since the body has a cycle of a little more than 24 hours it’s easier to adapt to a longer day, when traveling west, than when the day shortens when traveling east, according to University of Maryland physicist Michelle Girvan in a 2016 interview with the New York Times.
As far as specific causes on the biochemical level, Crane says molecular biology doesn’t have an exact answer yet. “I’m not sure we completely understand. For some reason [biological clocks] reset more easily from delays than they do advances,” says Crane.