In my last newsletter, I asked for suggestions for topics of interest and someone asked me about tips to help with the consequences of travel, particularly jet lag. As those of you who are patients or read my articles know, I really believe that the disruptions of modern life to our internal rhythms and our disconnection with Nature and her rhythms, have an increasing (negative) impact on our health. Travel, jet lag or even just shifts to our normal daily rhythms can cause such disruptions and have long-term health effects if recurrent.

Travel is a major aspect of our modern lives and time zone changes, altitude, stress from travel (whether or not by airplane), changes in daylight, dietary changes, changes to normal activity and other travel factors can end up taking a heavy toll on resilience. This is because they affect our body’s 24-hour Circadian “clock” which is very sensitive and linked to night and day, and to daily exposure to light (and darkness) generally.  In addition to light exposure however, there are 3 core rhythms that can have a big impact on our Circadian clock and therefore to neuro-endocrine function: sleep, timing of meals, and activity.  When traveling, in particular when crossing time zones, our Circadian “clock” can’t immediately adjust to changes to day and night (or more generally to sunlight exposure), and ensuing desynchronisation to the 3 core rhythms can cause a number of obvious symptoms such as fatigue, gastro-intestinal changes, headaches and dizziness, and muscle weakness or soreness. On a deeper and less obvious level, these disruptions affect physiological adaptation and function. If this happens recurrently, they can affect medium to long-term health, depending on your individual terrain and its weaknesses and strengths.

The commonness of travel and the fact that many of us already live in a state of chronic stress are factors in not realising just how long it actually takes our bodies to recover from the smallest changes to our Circadian rhythms or for that matter how much travel can impact on resilience. Circadian cycles are an ingrained part of the body’s normal neuro-endocrine re-setting and play an important role in immunity. Research has shown that when we mess with our natural rhythms, our immune system suffers and our resilience to disease weakens. Disruption to Circadian cycles can compromise health in much more subtle and insidious ways than particular “risk factors”. This is because it impacts our system as a whole over time causing increased susceptibility to chronic, auto-immune, metabolic, inflammatory, neurodegenerative, affective/mood, and reproductive conditions etc.

And what of Melatonin and the Microbiome in all of this? 

Melatonin, which is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain during darkness, helps regulate our Circadian rhythm by working as a light/darkness signal that tells other endocrine (hormonal) pathways that the body is ready for sleep. It works mainly by signals sent to the brain by the amounts of (sun)light coming into our eyes. Until melatonin levels are regulated and become adjusted to your new time zone, your Circadian clock will not be in sync with your new location and your sleep, digestive function and other rhythms will be impacted accordingly.

As for the microbiome, it too is sensitive to Circadian cycles! And who says microbiome also says immunity and mood. Jet lag and other shifts to Circadian rhythms can actually shift microbiome composition to one that supports obesity! Some recent research has shown that maintaining regular rhythms for meals has more of a positive impact on maintaining a healthy gut balance than a change in diet (including when eating unhealthy food) during disruptions to the Circadian rhythms. Remember that the gut microbiome also affects our “food-mood” axis. This is because bacteria in the gut convert food into a number of very important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA.

Travel

When you travel across time zones – even as short as a 1-hour one – the mismatch between your internal sleep-wake cycle and your 2 other core rhythms, and the time/rhythms at your destination, can interfere with sleep, hunger, digestion, and other basic bodily functions and contribute to jet lag symptoms. Traveling across enough time zones or shifting your rhythms enough to resemble a shift work type change can impair cognitive and other organ functions for up to a week! Traveling east causes more disruption to Circadian rhythms than traveling west because it requires our internal clock to be advanced, which is more difficult to accomplish than delaying it.

For most people, every 1 hour of time-zone change can take up to 1-2 days of adjustment. And you don’t need to travel for this type of disruption to your Circadian rhythm to happen. For instance, going out partying and staying awake 3-4 extra hours, getting up later in the day and moving your normal eating and activity cycles accordingly, can have the same effect as traveling within a 3/4-hour time zone! This is in fact termed “social jet lag”!

General Tips

Here are some practical tips to help you manage jet lag or other disruptions to your Circadian rhythms and minimise its impact on your health:

  • Stay hydrated. Airplane travel in particular can be dehydrating but so can forcing the body to stay awake outside of its normal rhythm. So ensure you’re drinking plenty of water.
  • Avoid airplane food and eat light. In fact, you may want to think about fasting or partial fasting before and during the trip. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School showed that fasting for at least 16 hours before your arrival can help to override the body’s Circadian clock. Fasting triggers an innate adaptive (survival) response that disrupts the Circadian rhythms by making finding food the focus. Even if you don’t fast, eating less can alleviate some of the poor digestion/regularity issues often associated with jet lag.
  • Get some sunshine and stay active. Your melatonin cycles — so ultimately your Circadian clock – depend on sunshine (and darkness) awareness. If you arrive during the day, go outdoors, even for a 20-30 minute walk; stay physically active during the day, absorb sunlight, and ground yourself in nature. If you arrive in the evening, taking a brisk walk before sleep if possible also helps. Try to stay active throughout your trip, particularly in the morning and daytime at your destination in the early days following the travel.
  • Resist the urge to nap or get to sleep too early.  Napping is a great way to repay “sleep debt” in normal circumstance (as long as the naps are short and don’t dissipate “sleep pressure” accumulated during the day). Napping is not helpful, however, in certain circumstances, jet lag being amongst them.  The most effective natural jet lag remedy is to force your body into the rhythms of its new location by building up sleep pressure. So wait until the normal time to sleep in your new location and try to adjust to the new sleep times the next morning.
  • Don’t snack at odd times, adopt meal times of new location. The same can be said for eating rhythms of what can be said for sleep. Eat meals at set times regardless of whether or not you are hungry, trying to do so in line with your new location’s meal times. Avoid snacking out of boredom or because you are still on your departure destination’s rhythms.
  • Avoid stimulants and chemicals. With your body’s clock already in turmoil, adding a stimulant such as alcohol, coffee or tea can end up causing more confusion. Despite needing a boost to push through that first afternoon, avoid drinking coffee or tea or some other stimulating drink after midday until you get readjusted. Keep alcohol to a minimum, particularly in the evening. Avoid synthetic sleep aids (such as sleeping pills) which can make jet lag recovery longer by interfering with the readjustments of your internal rhythms by giving your body contradictory signals.
  • Avoid electronics at night including on the airplane. The blue light from screens can alter melatonin production. A better option for supporting sleep is to read rather than watch movies or play games on your devices.
  • Start on the airplane: You can do a number of things on the airplane to ease the impact of jet lag. Set your watch and devices to the time in your future destination. Set your activity in line with your new destination so if applicable put eye masks and ear plugs in and try to sleep. Close the window shade when it’s time to simulate darkness. Get up, move around the plane to avoid lethargy, and avoid snoozing through the flight if it is daytime hours at your future destination.
  • Try a breathing aid. One of the reasons we get headaches, fogginess, lightheadedness and can’t sleep on the plane is the lack of oxygen to the brain. Altitude and pressurisation on an airplane means it is similar to being on a very high mountain with much less oxygen. Breathing aids, which open the nostrils, can allow for 20-50% more air (and therefore oxygen) than not having one, which will reduce symptoms of jet lag.
  • Meditate: Meditation helps regulate brain wave rhythms and can be a helpful aid in restoring sleep patterns, amongst its many other benefits!

Herbs and Supplements

  • Take Adaptogenic herbs before, during and after travel. As their name implies, adaptogenic herbs are herbs that help your system, particularly your adrenal axis, cope with change and stress by regulating your body’s adaptive response. These can help manage jet lag symptoms. My favourite “neutral” (by neutral I mean that they don’t also affect other hormonal pathways significantly or directly) adaptogens are as follows:
    • Ribes nigrum (Black currant): I particularly advise taking this in the gemmotherapy form (this means in a glycerite macerate of the buds of the plant), which is the form that works best for adaptation regulation and immune system support. Take 25 drops (or 1ml) 3 times a day before meals. Begin a week before you travel, during your holiday or stay in accordance with local times (before meals) and then after your return for an additional 7-10 days.
    • Rhodiola rosea (Rhodiola or Arctic root): You can take this in tincture, phytomicrospheres or powder capsule form. In tincture take the same dosage as for the Ribes but note that for some people Rhodiola can be slightly stimulating in the evening so if this is the case for you, take it before 3pm (time at your current place) or don’t take the last dose. For capsules follow the instructions of source of your herbs, but usually it will be 1-3 capsules per day in similar fashion as the tincture.
    • Astragalus membranaceus (Milk vetch): This adaptogen is an especially useful preventative if you tend to pick up colds or other bugs when you travel since in addition to its adaptogenic actions, it helps boost and protect your immune system. If you are suffering an acute episode of some infection at the time of travel it is best avoided however (since it can cause a hyper-immune response). Dosage as per above.
    • Bacopa monieri (Bacopa): an Ayurvedic adaptogenic herb with a particular affinity for improving brain function so it is a good adaptogen for people who tend to suffer cognitively (headaches, fogginess, memory issues, mental fatigue, cognitive disruption) when travelling. Same dosages as above.
    • Schisandra chinensis (Schisandra): a TCM adaptogenic herb with specific affinities for supporting liver and circulatory system function. Same dosages as above.
    • If you don’t have any particular sex hormone or thyroid imbalances you can also try Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng), Avena sativa (Oat or oat straw), and Withania somnifera(Ashwagandha), which are three adaptogens amongst my favourites. If you are patient don’t hesitate to ask me if these would be appropriate for you.
  • Plants for help with sleep. In addition to the herbs above, herbs which help regulate and support sleep are helpful when travelling. As a herbalist, I prefer using herbs rather than synthetic forms of hormones, pills or even supplements so when it comes to supporting and improving sleep, I suggest the following:
    • Valeriana officinalis (Valerian root): Take 3-5 mls of tincture or a strong infusion/tea about 30 minutes before sleep. Valerian impacts on GABA and serotonin receptors in the brain, helping to induce sleep and maintain it longer. Note that a very small percentage of the population (less than 5%) can feel the opposite effect with Valerian. If this is the case, use an alternative.
    • Passiflora incarnata (Passion flower): unlike its name may suggest this plant doesn’t actually induce passion (!). It is calming and also helpful for anxiety and in addition it potentiates the effectiveness of other herbs. It also seems to work on regulating sleep by modulating the GABA pathways in the brain. Take the same dose as above. If combined with other plants, take the dose above as a combined amount.
    • Griffonia simplicifolia (Griffonia): Griffonia is a natural source of 5-HTP, the precursor in serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in sleep/wake cycles, mental clarity and mood. It also helps regulate appetite. Because herbal Griffonia is a whole plant extract it isn’t metabolised in the same way as synthetic 5-HTP and therefore doesn’t produce the same potential side effects related to serotonin levels as supplements can. It is however a relatively expensive plant so I recommend using it for short periods, for instance for a few days during travel and until adjustment occurs, especially if your gut is also playing up.
    • Eschscholzia california (California poppy): a gentle sedative with none of the side effects associated with opioids as it name might otherwise suggest. It is also anti-anxiety and helps with pain reduction. It is thought that its compounds act primarily on GABA receptors in the brain. It also affects serotonin receptors. Same doses as above.
  • Supplements and alternatives. 
    • Synthetic melatonin: I don’t usually recommend taking melatonin long term (or at all if herbs are sufficient) but in some cases, such as for people with chronic sleep issues or who are travelling for work across 3+ hour time zones, it can provide a helpful short-term solution. Ideally it should only be taken long enough to help restore sleep patterns. One study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that a 0.5 mg dose of melatonin — available for purchase as a nutritional supplement — taken on the first day of a trip can help alleviate jet lag if proper amounts of sunlight are absorbed. I’m not certain it is available for purchase in the UK though it can be bought on the internet. If you decide to try, here are my suggestions for taking it:
      • Take melatonin 30 minutes to an hour before sleep (for eastward travel, melatonin can also be taken en route, 30 minutes prior to the target bedtime at your destination. It doesn’t need to be taken en route for westward travel).
      • Start with a small dose and take only what you need.  A typical dose for melatonin ranges from 0.5mg to 5mg. Small doses–as little as 0.5mg taken for 3 days or until adjustment – seem to be just as effective for reducing jet lag symptoms as higher doses.
      • Don’t combine melatonin with other sedatives. Avoid alcohol, sedating medications, and other sedating supplements when taking melatonin. It can be taken alongside the above herbs however.
      • With the exception of when you are traveling eastward, only take it once you’ve reached your destination and only before local sleep hours.
    • Pycnogenol – an extract of the bark of French pine trees – is another supplement that has been studied for its ability to reduce jet lag symptoms and their time frame. It seems to improve short- term memory, cardiac function and blood pressure, and reduce fatigue. You can take 50 mg of pycnogenol three times a day, starting two days before your trip. Sometimes it is included in more broad-based anti-oxidant supplements – such as those made by Viridian – which is a good alternative to taking the one supplement.
    • B vitamins, particularly vitamin B6 and B-12 as well as vitamin D are also important to reduce side effects of travel. If you are going to a sunny place, getting enough natural sun (without sunscreen) will be the best way of boosting your vitamin D. For the B vitamins, I usually recommend a good quality vitamin B complex, to start before travel and continue until a few weeks after.
    • Probiotics. Given their importance in converting foods into neurotransmitters and their role in mood as well, taking a good probiotic before, during and after travel is advisable. This is all the more the case if you have a tendency towards digestive complaints to begin with. I particularly like a limited based (rather than broad-based) probiotic containing Lactobacilus, Bifidus and Sacchormyces strains.
    • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is helpful to stave off infections when travelling and to help with alertness during the day. Take about 500mgs (or to intestinal tolerance) in the morning (or morning time where you are travelling to).

Safe and relaxing travels! And if there is another topic of interest to you do let me know.

Reference: Dr. Panda S. 2018. The Circadian Code. London, England, Vermillion.

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