Jet Lag Is Not All In The Mind – Though It Does Affect It!

December 1, 2010

Returning from a long flight can leave you feeling tired and disoriented and this disturbance to your internal body clock and disruption of circadian rhythms can cause you to feel out of sorts and often means an upset stomach because the body’s hunger cycle is out of sync with meal times.

It usually also means your memory is less than reliable which most of us put down to the combination of the time zone shift and the tiredness, but it seems that chronic jet lag alters the brain in ways that cause memory and learning problems long after you get back. Knowing how this can affect your body can help you plan your recovery time and reduce the level of stress and anxiety that you might be subject to as you forget to order the milk or even what your own last name is.

Each of us has an internal, 24-hour clock that drives our circadian rhythm, which is reset every day by small amounts. When a person enters a time zone that is not synched with his or her internal clock, it takes much longer to reset this daily rhythm, causing jet lag until the internal clock gets re-synched.

If you are a frequent flyer then, unlike occasional travellers who recover in a few days, the risks are much greater and include decreased reaction times, higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and reduced fertility. The World Health Organization actually lists shift work as a carcinogen so knowing that it pays to be proactive about your health care and reduce all other known cancer risks as well.

Research by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley studied the effects of continuous jet lag by exposing female Syrian hamsters to six-hour time shifts — the equivalent of a New York-to-Paris airplane flight. If you are wondering (and why not) why female and Syrian, then it is because their bodily rhythms are so precise that they will produce eggs, or ovulate, every 96 hours to within a window of a few minutes.

Nice to know hamsters at least have a reliable monthly pattern, but why they didn’t just ask frequent flyer air crews is a mystery, but then I am not a scientist – thank goodness.

During the last two weeks of jet lag and a month after recovery from it, the hamsters’ performance on learning and memory tasks was measured and, as expected, during the jet lag period they had trouble learning simple tasks that the hamsters in the control group had no difficulty with.

What did surprise the researchers was that these deficits persisted for a month after the hamsters returned to a regular day-night schedule.

The real discovery was that the jet lag caused persistent changes in the brain, specifically within the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays an intricate role in memory processing. Compared to the hamsters in the control group, the jet-lagged hamsters had only half the number of new neurons in the hippocampus following the month long exposure to jet lag.

This is important because new neurons are constantly being added to the adult hippocampus and are thought to be important for specific types of learning, and memory problems are associated with a drop in cell maturation and atrophy.

This study shows directly that jet lag decreases neurogenesis in the hippocampus and so this effect means that when you experience jet lag it has a profound effect on brain and memory function, and cognitive function is impaired at that time and for up to a month afterwards.

Anyone experiencing sleep pattern disturbance, whether from jet lag or a working schedule that means repeated disruption of circadian rhythms such as those who undertake shift work, like hospital doctors or call centre operators then they are likely to have a long-term impact on their cognitive behaviour and function.”

A Simple Regime to Help You Cope With Jet Lag:
If you suffer from jet lag, then you are going to be operating under par and a few simple techniques can help you avoid it. The worst effects seem to occur during eastward travel and in general you should allow one day of recovery for every one-hour time zone shift.

These ideas might help too:

1) Melatonin – a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain and one of its key jobs is controlling the body’s circadian rhythm. — Melatonin supplements are thought to help the body quickly adjust to the new surroundings and a low dosage is recommended of 0.5 mg a night for three nights, one hour before a normal bedtime – not before, once you get to your destination.

2) Adjust your watch – so it reflefts your destination time the day before you travel as that can psychologically help you adjust.

3) Homeopathy – a popular homeopathic remedy for Jet Lag is Cocculus Indicus and it can be taken every twelve hours starting two days before the flight until three days after the flight. This is not generally available but can be supplied by any homoepathic chemist. These are more commonly on sale for specific aspects of jet lag:

* Arnica – sleeplessness and restlessness when over-tired

* Bellis perennis – waking mid-sleep and sleep interruptions

* Chamomilla – emotional and mental stress, sleeplessness, impatience, intolerance and disorientation

* Ipecacuanha – intense and constant nausea

* Lycopodium – anxiety, anticipatory fears, apprehension, inability to adapt to new surroundings, digestive problems, especially bloating and gas

4) Valerian – is a natural sleep aid and can help you adjust to new time zones by helping people fall asleep at their desired time. Valerian is not addictive and will not cause grogginess the next morning.

5) Diet – the usual suspects; avoid excess alcohol or caffeine, drink plenty of water, and eat light meals. A new development on this is to start 3 days before departure and on day 1 eat a very high protein breakfast to help stimulate the body’s production of dopamine and then a high-carbohydrate dinner to stimulate the body to produce melatonin. Avoid stimulants like coffee, tea, chocolate and energy drinks.

On day 2 stick to light salads and soups and then on day 3 repeat day 1’s menu.

On day 4, repeat day 2 and get as much sleep as you can until it is breakfast time at your destination. Then have a protein-heavy breakfast without coffee, turn on the overhead reading light and then stay as active as you can afterwards. If this doesn’t fit in with the airline’s scheduled meal delivery, take your own with you in the form of protein bars.
WARNING – this is not a suitable diet plan for anyone with diabetes or eating disorders.

6) Bedtime – when you finally do get to your own bed make sure the room is completely dark and noise free to allow your body to adjust and get a decent amount of sleep.


Article by  


What do you think of this health article by ? Join the discussion...