Vacation is over. A pile of laundry is waiting to be cleaned. But perhaps most dauntingly, your body is still eight hours ahead of local time. Cue droopy eyes and total lack of energy. Jet lag, we are so over you.
Luckily, a new study found a novel trick for getting your body clock back on track, and it’s extremely straightforward: Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner on a normal schedule. You’ll immediately lessen jet lag symptoms.
It’s a far cry from doctors’ typical jet lag tips ― like avoiding caffeine and alcohol before you try to sleep, slowly adjusting your sleep schedule to a new time zone or even using small doses of melatonin to help fall asleep when your body typically wouldn’t want to, the study’s author Cristina Ruscitto, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey (and former long-haul air crew member), told The Huffington Post.
The idea is, she said, “that you readjust by eating in line with local time ― not just sleeping on local time.”
This revelation could be an easy fix for jet lagged travelers everywhere. And it might also be a big help to airplane flight crews and others who may not be able to take sleep aids because of airline safety restrictions ― or who may not have access to (or time to use) other remedies like light box therapy or exposure to natural sunlight, Ruscitto said.
Food keeps the circadian system in sync
The fact that our circadian rhythms, our body’s internal clocks, are related to eating is well-established, she explained.
The body’s full circadian system includes not only the central clock in the brain, but also the peripheral clocks in other organs like the stomach, liver and lungs, she said. “Peripheral clocks respond to food and the central clock responds to light.”
People experience jet lag when all of these clocks are out of sync with each other ― which happens when we change the timing of our routine behaviors (eating, sleeping and being exposed to light).
So the prediction that adjusting meal timing to a regular schedule would help lessen jet lag makes sense, Ruscitto added. “Eating regularly provides information to the circadian system, telling the body to be active.”
To test their hypothesis, researchers found 60 airplane crew members who were working a flight with a time change of at least four hours and a layover of at least 48 hours after they landed (so they could track their jet lag symptoms for two full days post-travel).
“Eating regularly provides information to the circadian system, telling the body to be active.”
The day before the trip everyone was assigned to one of two groups. The first group was told to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner on a “regular” schedule for the two days after their flight. They were free to choose how to schedule those meals, but they were instructed to plan out that schedule ahead of time using as much detail as possible.The second group was told to eat however they typically would in the two days following their trip.
Everyone was told to avoid napping before their flight and using any sleeping pills after their flight.
“We found that making a meal plan to eat regularly (breakfast, lunch and dinner) before you travel did help reduce jet lag on days off [afterward],” she said.
On the two days after their flights everyone in the study took tests that objectively measured alertness and answered questions about how jet lagged they felt. Though there were not big differences in alertness scores between the two groups, the crew members who had eaten regular meals on the two days after their flights reported feeling significantly less jet lagged than the other group ― with scores about three quarters of a point lower the first day after their trip (on a five-point scale) and a half point lower the second day.
“The simple idea is to [keep] the circadian system in sync so that when you come back from a long-haul trip you readjust by eating in line with the local time ― not just [by] sleeping on local time,” Ruscitto said.
It’s important to note that the study did have some caveats. The researchers didn’t measure the precise times and contents of the crew members’ meals, so they relied on self-reporting. And the number of people in the study was still relatively small.
In the meantime, the results of this experiment were convincing enough that anyone, whether traveling regularly or just occasionally, can try the strategy themselves post-travel, Ruscitto said.
Her advice: “Plan to eat regularly (breakfast, lunch and dinner) from day one when you are back home.”
If that’s the difference between the post-travel fog and more energy, we’re in.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.