A protein called REV-ERBa may be the key to unlocking a regular, healthy circadian rhythm. Until there’s a pill to take, here are strategies the experts recommend.
The longest flights in the world are just getting longer. Emirates’ latest route from Dubai to Auckland clocks in at a whopping 16.5 hours — it’s the lengthiest flight on the market — and Qantas plans to launch a new 17-hour route between Perth and London in 2018. But painful as long-haul flights can be, it’s their aftermath — jet lag — that you should really be dreading.
That might soon change, though. The medical community has taken the next step toward finding a jet-lag cure, thanks to a Salk Institute study published last year. According to Dr. Ronald Evans, the lead author of the study, a protein called REV-ERBa (pronounced ree-verb-AY) may be the key to unlocking a regular, healthy circadian rhythm no matter where (or when) in the world you are.
Your biological clock
Turns out, the circadian rhythm, a physiological cycle that roughly matches up to the length of a day, doesn’t just regulate when we feel sleepy — it also regulates when we get hungry and when we feel most active.
“Under normal circumstances,” Evans said, “we sleep when it’s dark, and wake up and eat when the sun rises.”
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Eating is a key point: Circadian rhythm is about both sleep and metabolism. In other words, you can fight jet lag by consuming (and burning) calories at the right times as well as trying to sleep at proper times.
Your circadian rhythm doesn’t regulate itself: REV-ERBa does. According to Evans’ study, the protein acts as a sort of master switch that coordinates the “turning on and off” of genes that regulate our circadian rhythms, including those involved in metabolism.
Pinpointing that master switch and understanding how it works is the first step to controlling it artificially. By regulating both the amount of REV-ERBa in the body as well as how much it fluctuates over the course of a day, we might eventually find a cure for jet lag. And it doesn’t end there: the same science may eventually offer relief to people with chronic sleeping issues and other chronic conditions that can develop as a result of a disrupted circadian cycle.
A pill that prevents jet lag is still years down the road, but there are plenty of simple but specific strategies that let you take matters into your own hands. Yes, different strokes work for different folks — frequent road warriors tout everything from popping a pill before takeoff to doing yoga upon arrival to apps — but the more we understand the mechanisms that create jet lag, the better equipped we are to pick and choose our tactics.
Evans’ biggest take-away is to place equal importance on all three of those pillars of circadian rhythm when resetting your schedule in a new time zone. The sooner you’re moving around, sleeping, and eating at the right times, the sooner you’ll adjust.
The heightened role of diet in fighting jet lag led us to call in nutritionist Kimberly Snyder for extra advice; she’s recently co-written a book with Deepak Chopra that discusses circadian rhythms at length. Her pro tip: Skip the hotel breakfast. And don’t even think about room service.
Instead, says Evans, you should wake up at a normal hour and head off-site for a morning meal: it’ll reset both your activity and feeding cycles while getting you some fresh air and forcing you to wake up at a reasonable time. Counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s far better than easing into your morning under the hotel duvet with a cup of coffee. “We can use food and light exposure to adjust more rapidly by timing when we eat, sleep, wake up, and are exposed to natural light,” she advises. Sunlight, she says, “helps signal and reset our circadian rhythms,” allowing our bodies to adapt more quickly.
Snyder adds that what you order for breakfast can also make a difference. To combat the stresses of travel, avoid those fatty, sugary foods we all crave when we’re sleepy and instead eat foods rich in amino acids and antioxidants such as asparagus, broccoli, avocado, spinach and garlic. (Try avocado toast and a veggie omelet.)
More tips for weary travelers
Get ahead of the game. Some shift their sleep schedules before a trip; thanks to Evans’ study on REV-ERBa, we now know that you can shift your meal schedule, too. Snyder says “we should fast while on the plane, and then eat soon after landing, in order to reset our rhythm.” And if you land with a ravenous appetite at midnight, try to avoid an absurdly late dinner. Instead, “time your first meal to match the nearest meal time of your new time zone,” she said.
You are what you eat. “Be sure not to eat a protein- or fat-rich dinner the night before travel,” said Snyder. “Not only will that make you feel heavy [on the plane], but it also directs energy into digestion through the night.” This makes it harder to fall asleep in flight.
You’re also what you drink. “Drink plenty of water, and bring natural vitamin C or antioxidant packets to mix into your water on the plane and after your flight,” advised Snyder. She said travelers should also avoid alcohol and caffeine prior to, during, and after travel since both are dehydrating and can have deleterious effects on the nervous system. If you do drink, go with the frequent travelers’ rule of thumb: two glasses of water for every glass of wine or cup of coffee.
Supplements help. You know to take melatonin if you can’t fall asleep in your new time zone. But what about magnesium oxide? It can keep your digestive health in check (we’re talking about the end process of nutrition here) which contributes a “regular” circadian rhythm.
Be realistic. If you don’t recover from jet lag in the first day or two, don’t beat yourself up. Some travelers are faster adapters than others.