I love to travel. It not only keeps life interesting and satisfies my inner wonder junkie, but also helps me to see a new side of a person I thought I’d known pretty well: myself. Under normal circumstances, we can predict how we might react to an unwieldy line at our usual coffee shop, or how we might feel stuck in traffic on our regular route to the gym. This is because familiar settings inspire familiar thoughts. Thrust into a completely novel environment, it’s hard to say how any of us might react to otherwise unremarkable stimuli. It’s as author Alain de Botton says: “Journeys are the midwives of thought.” This is true literally as well as figuratively. Thought itself is the observable outcome of the invisible communication of billions of neurons in your brain, and novel experiences (such as what we might expect from a trip) increase the number of connections that these brain cells form with one another. (R)
As great as travel is for the mind, however, it can take a physical toll on one’s body. Sitting for many hours in transit is incongruous with our biological yearning to move. Crossing time zone throws off our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Recent research has shed light on these internal clocks, linking them to everything from weight gain to cancer risk. (R) Eating on the road presents its own set of health problems: The packaged foods rich in easily digestible carbohydrates, processed oils and industrial additives make us feel crummy all around.
How can we solve the cognitive consequences of jet lag? Our brains sit in a dark cavity, with our eyes their only window to the outside world. The light we see is therefore a major modulator of many of these effects. When I arrive at a destination, if the sun is still out, I step outside and look at the sky without sunglasses—not directly at the sun, but towards the sky, which even on a cloudy day is brighter than any indoor lighting could ever be. The following day, I step outside as soon as I wake up and do the same thing. The bright light helps to anchor the body’s entire 24-hour cycle.
Taking melatonin (three to five milligrams) 30 minutes before sleep has also been shown to significantly improve jet lag. (R) Melatonin is the hormone secreted by your pineal gland that tells your brain when it’s time to wind down. This naturally produced hormone is easily suppressed by bright light, however, so I try to minimize my exposure to glaring screens for at least an hour before bed (or don a pair of blue-blocking glasses which can help minimize light-induced melatonin suppression). Ensure your hotel is as dark as possible—even dim light while sleeping has been found to negatively affect cognitive function. (R) You may also consider traveling with a sleep mask to use at night, such as the Alaska Bear Sleep Mask or Sleep Master Sleep Mask.
The body prefers cooler temperatures to sleep, and in fact, your body temperature itself will drop during sleep. Aside from lowering the air conditioner in a hotel room, I find that taking a warm bath or shower and stepping out into the cooler room tricks the body into a sleepier state.
A shower can help anchor the body’s circadian clock in the daytime, as well, helping you to feel alert when your body is in Tokyo but your brain is in New York. Taking a shower on the coldest setting in the morning could theoretically trigger a hormone response akin to what normally occurs waking up—helping to put you back on track. I do this regularly and when I’m fatigued the cold makes my brain feel like it’s coming back “online.” We owe this sensation to a surge in the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which is important for focus and attention.
Light and temperature aren't the only signals your brain uses to keep time: Meal timing may be a powerful modulator of our body's circadian rhythms. When we know that our schedules are going to be suddenly thrown off by travel, we can use intermittent fasting (ie, strategically avoiding food) to soften the blow to our circadian rhythms. I avoid food and caffeine during long flights (but drink lots of water), until eating a large fast-breaking meal (along with a cup or two of coffee) the morning after I arrive (or just upon arrival, if I arrive in the morning). A protocol similar to this, developed by a chronobiologist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, was shown to significantly reduce occurrence of jet lag in a 2002 study. (R)
What (not just when) you eat may also matter. New research into how certain nutrients affect sleep has highlighted some interesting associations. Diets that are lower in carbohydrates and higher in dietary fiber from vegetables (dark leafy greens, for example) have been associated with more time spent in slow wave sleep. (R) And chocolate fans, finally rejoice: After partial sleep deprivation, eating flavanol-rich chocolate (ideally, it should be 85-percent cacao content or above) was shown to correct some of the cognitive problems associated with sleep loss. (R) Perhaps hotels that put little chocolate squares on our pillows knew this all along.
Do you have any tried-and-true methods for defeating jet lag? If so, let me know in the comments below!