As jet-setting international students, it’s easy to believe that hopping international time zones has become an intuitive life skill—that conquering the natural ebb and flows of our circadian rhythms is just another task—like learning how to drive a car. But no matter how often I travel, that untimely wave of drowsiness or alertness manages to interrupt my efforts to acclimate without fail.
I decided to probe deeper into why we get jet lag, and what I found revealed something humbling about our visceral humanoid makeup—that despite living in the global age of travel, our bodies have not yet adapted evolutionarily to our itinerant lifestyles.
Jet Lag vs. our “Pleistocene brains”
Like the name “jet lag” suggests, our bodies are fighting against a lag between our normal internal clock and the one we’re supposed to adjust to in a new time zone. Science writer Jonah Lehrer describes jet lag as “an annoyance of modern life for which our Pleistocene brain is completely unprepared” (read the rest here). Indeed, our brains are programmed to operate within a patterned 24-hour routine. According to Clifford Saper, a doctor who led a Harvard Medical School study about jet lag and eating schedules, it takes an average person a week for their circadian rhythms to adjust.
Not only that: Our brain circuitry reacts adversely to the stress that jet lag causes. A University of California, Berkeley study reveals that jet lag decreases the number of new neurons being grown in our hippocampus (the area of the brain that controls memory and alertness). This is perhaps why we call jet lag jisabokeh, or “time difference daze”, in Japanese.
Fighting jet lag
But there are ways to train your body to fight the ‘lag:
- Perhaps one of the more well-known tactics is exposure to sunlight. The Mayo Clinic tells us: “That’s because the pineal gland, a part of the brain that influences circadian rhythms, responds to darkness and light.” Perhaps this explains why we never seem jet lagged on the beach…
- According to a Harvard Medical School study, eating less the day before your flight also helps regulate your internal clock. “When the body feels its moving into starvation mode, this second clock kicks in, adjusting sleep schedules to maximize the chance of finding some grub.”
- Assure your body that it’s in a “normal” environment. Sitting a cramped economy seat isn’t comfortable or natural. Make sure to move around as much as possible during a layover or if you’re stuck on a 12+ hour ride, walk around on occasion when the seatbelt sign is turned off. Also, keep yourself hydrated.
- The Cleveland Clinic suggests: Before traveling from east to west, go to bed later and wake up later for several days before departure. Before traveling from west to east, go to bed earlier and wake up earlier for several days before departure. Finally, maybe plan your next trip on a new Boeing 787.
What are some of your jet lag–fighting techniques?