Jet lag is a shape-shifting affliction that debilitates travelers of all ages. The merciless wrath of desynchronosis – or time-zone-change syndrome – can strike at any time, dragging you down into a pit of sluggish, irritable despair. It is, by many accounts, the worst.
Jet lag is the resulting physiological dysfunction that happens when your circadian rhythm is interrupted. But although we know what jet lag is, we don’t really know everything that’s going on.
“We are just beginning to understand the exact biological mechanisms underlying jet lag,” says Michael Sagner, a doctor and member of the Royal College of Physicians and a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, in the U.K., who works with patients who frequently fly. Sagner says what we do know is that two major factors influence our internal clocks: sunlight and food intake.
And according to new research over at MIT, jet lag appears to get worse with age. Like so many other biological functions, our circadian rhythm loses its vigor with every passing birthday.
“We think that what happens – at least in mice, and probably in humans – is the reason that we adjust less well as we get older is the machinery of the circadian clock itself becomes less robust,” says Leonard Guarente, director of the Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at MIT and chief scientist of Elysium Health.
Slowing down the aging process could ease jet-lag pain, and Guarente and his team are working on ways to do just that by using nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD+, molecule supplements. “We think that if you could replenish the NAD+, you, in theory, should have a beneficial effect on the clock and on being to adapt to jet lag,” Guarente says.
While we’re hopeful for the science of the future, we also want to stop the hurt of traveling between time zones right now. Here’s how four of the world’s pre-eminent frequent flyers deal with jet lag in their own lives:
Ramsey Qubein, a freelance travel writer and international editor of Business Traveler magazine, logs about 450,000 miles annually and has been to 166 of the world’s 195 countries. The million miler (a few times over) still gets jet lag like the rest of us.
“I power through it,” Qubein says. “If I have to be up at 3 a.m. because I can’t sleep, I make a point to be productive and work. Usually, if you get up and do something for an hour, you will get tired again.”
Qubein follows some traditional schools of thought on fighting jet lag (like staying hydrated and building in a buffer day to your travel plans) but recommends tailoring advice to fit your needs.
“When I go to Europe, I do take a nap when I land. People say you shouldn’t, but this works for me,” he says. “I take a two- to three-hour nap and wake up around noon, since most flights to Europe land in the morning. Waking up is hard, but then you stay awake until late that evening.”
Dave Asprey may have cracked the code on jet lag. Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof 360, is a “biohacker,” which, according to the Merriam-Webster definition supplemented with his mention, means that he uses science and technology to make his body function better and more efficiently. He tackled jet lag with the same biologically conscious approach as he would other physiological dysfunctions. “I don’t experience jet lag, because I’ve learned how to hack it,” Asprey says.
His game plan is a multistep process, combining gear (compression socks, TrueDark Twilight glasses, ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones), supplements (Polyphenomenal, KetoPrime, Unfair Advantage) and so-called grounding – an alternative medicine practice of walking barefoot in nature to connect with the Earth’s mild negative charge.
“I laughed at the idea at first,” Asprey says. Unconvinced of the concept but confident that raising body temperature by exercising in the morning can help reset circadian rhythms, Asprey went to a park by his hotel and tried doing some yoga barefoot. The exercise seemed to work. He tried doing yoga indoors on his next jet-lag-inducing trip and found that the result wasn’t the same. Being barefoot in the park seemed to hold the real magic.
“After a few trips, I confirmed for myself that grounding worked for reasons I didn’t understand,” he says.
New York-based Carmen Sognonvi is the matriarch behind the family travel blog Top Flight Family. With her husband and two young daughters, Sognovi travels about twice a month to both national and international destinations. When they cross time zones, everyone suffers from jet lag.
“The difference is that when they have jet lag, our girls will sleep anywhere, anytime,” Sognovi says.
The family prepares for big trips ahead of time by keeping the vacation agenda light for the first few days, allowing for rest and recovery time when jet lag hits. Sognovi encourages families to try traveling long distances even if they’re worried about how kids will respond, saying that children are more resilient than you’d expect. The benefits of challenging travel outweigh a temporary negative like jet lag.
“Learning to cope with jet lag is a valuable life skill for children to learn, and it’s a small price to pay for seeing a whole other part of the world,” she says.” Traveling at a young age teaches kids critical life skills like resilience, adaptability and endurance. The earlier they start, the more benefit they’ll receive from these skills.”
If you follow Massimo Bottura on Instagram, you’ll see him toggle between two lives: one filled with pasta in Italy and one – also filled with pasta – running around the world on business.
“I try to keep my trips, even those to faraway destinations such as Asia or Australia, as short as possible, no more than four days away from home,” says the chef and owner of Osteria Francescana and Casa Maria Luigia, both in Modena.
With that kind of breakneck turnaround, Bottura runs into jet lag regularly. He’s figured out how to fuel his body properly to face the problem.
“I have learned over the past years to combat the fatigue of jet lag by eating well, drinking lots of water and almost no alcoholic beverages – both during travel and during my trip,” he says.
Bottura is an advocate for sleeping as much as possible during nighttime hours but having a good Netflix show or book on hand to provide solace at 4 a.m. when you can’t sleep. And if all else fails, embrace it.
“Don’t worry. Jet lag is part of the adventure, the journey,” he says, “and, actually, I never would have imagined the interesting people I have met at breakfast at 7 a.m. because they are as jet-lagged as you.”