Natural Tricks to Jet Lag or Resetting Your Circadian Rhythms

I have been traveling more than ever the past couple months and it seems that everywhere I go changes time zones.  I happen to be fairly lucky in the department of falling asleep and adjusting quickly; however, there are natural tricks that you can use to your advantage if you suffer from time changes.  Try to stay away from habit-forming pharmaceuticals that artificially alter your sleep-wake patterns because they end up doing you more harm than good long term.

  1. Eat on schedule.  Have breakfast when you want your body to start waking up and quit eating a couple hours before you want to fall asleep.  Even if this means eating at weird times as you a traveling back.  Much of your sleep/wake cycle is regulated by hormones and chemicals that your gut bacteria play a part in creating.  The bacteria living in your gut can’t see light though, so they use signals from you to tell what time it is.  When you eat, it signals to them that it is waking hours and they follow suit.
  2. Wear glasses that block blue light.  Many people are familiar with the glasses like Felix Gray that block blue light from computer screens, but most probably don’t use this to their advantage for jet lag.  Just like eating signals to your gut bacteria that it’s time to be awake, blue light exposure tells them and your body that it is daylight.  This is why people wear glasses to block computer light at night.  If they don’t, they can have trouble sleeping because that light is a signal to your internal clock to produce cortisol.  Cortisol is a hormone in the body that spikes when you wake up and gradually decreases throughout the day until it hits rock bottom at night.  When it is low, you get sleepy.  (If you’re a person that suffers from mid-day fatigue, then you may see this dip in cortisol happen in the middle of the day on labs, which explains why you’re ready for a nap!)  If you wear blue blocking lenses when you want to start falling asleep and keep them off when you want to be wide awake, it will help adjust those cortisol patterns.
  3. Take melatonin.  Just like blue light stimulates cortisol to make you feel awake, lack of blue light dampens cortisol and allows melatonin to rise.  When the sun goes down and your cortisol plummets, that’s melatonin’s signal to increase.  You should have high melatonin around the time you want to go to bed.  You can artificially mimic this by taking melatonin supplements before you want to go to bed.  This will make people drowsy.  Melatonin is a hormone, so you would not want to rely on this for long-term sleep aid, but it is helpful in resetting jet lag.  If you take too much, you could end up having vivid dreams or waking up with a “hang over.”  So, start with small doses and work your way up as needed.
  4. Go outside.  Following the suns schedule is a powerful tool to get in synch with the normal rhythms of the Earth.  If you get up to watch the sunrise and go out to watch the sunset, you’d be amazed how quickly you fall into place.  This happens mostly because of the light exposure having an impact on your cortisol and melatonin ratios.
  5. Exercise intensely when you want me to waking up. When you exercise, it raises cortisol levels just like light does, so if you time your exercise for when you want to be awake first thing, then your body will tend towards a cortisol spike during that time.  This will wake your body up, and help you fall asleep at night when the time is right.
  6. Have caffeine in the morning.  Once again, we want cortisol to be spiking when you would be waking up.  Caffeine stimulates cortisol production, so having a cup of coffee when you WANT your body to be waking up will help put that circadian rhythm back on track.  That also means avoiding it when you would want your body to be getting sleepy.

These practical tips are easy to do if you think about them ahead of time and plan.  I can’t emphasize enough how important light exposure is in trying to reset your internal clock, so if you can do things that make your body think it’s light when you want to be awake and dark when you want to sleep, the better off you’ll be.  Shift work and time zone changes is one of the hardest thing you can do your body and actually contributes to earlier death and heart attacks.  So, while this is somewhat necessary at times for work or travel, you should try to avoid it as much as possible.  Your immune system actually functions on this same rhythm, so having your body produce cortisol at the wrong times will actually dampen your immune system during those times, too.  This is one reason many people get sick when traveling.  Not only are you often stuck on a plane with recycled air from tons of individuals, but you are throwing off your body’s normal rhythm to fight infections and create immune cells.  This is something to really consider especially if you have disorders of the immune system, like autoimmunity.  Your immune system reacts to your cues, so try to make them as easily translatable as you can to what normal cycles are.

I hope this helps!

Sleep Disturbance: How Melatonin Plays a Part

Melatonin is a hormone.  This hormone plays an enormous role in your immune system and has dramatic effects on sleep.  Our bodies have evolved based on the exposure of natural light.  You wake as the sun rises, and you fall sleepy when it goes down.  When the sun goes down, your melatonin production goes up.  Melatonin has an inverse relationship with cortisol, which we discuss a lot when talking about adrenal fatigue.  Basically, it means that as cortisol rises first thing in the morning, melatonin is low and you feel awake.  At night, your cortisol should be at it’s lowest and melatonin at its highest making you sleepy.  When this relationship is faulty you may feel sleepy in the middle of the day or wide awake in the middle of the night.  Considering how important sleep is for hormone production, cellular repair, and inflammation regulation, this can be a HUGE issue!

As many of you know, I just got back from a trip to Peru, and there was a similarity to my time spent in Africa: light.  In Africa, I had no electricity.  That meant when the sun went down, the only light available was by fire or candlelight.  As you return to The States, you have unlimited availability to light via electricity.  This means that after returning home from work we watch TV, get on our computers, play on our phones, and so on.  We do this without even noticing it!  I left for Peru and over my time there, I realized my day was dictated by the sun.  You go home for bed when it gets dark, and when you get home, a fire is your source of light.  I slept great, woke up to the sunrise, and I never felt miserable waking up to an alarm when I wanted to keep sleeping.  I was in the same time zone as in the US, so that wasn’t an issue, but if I experienced jet lag, I would look to melatonin to reset these circadian rhythms.

When I test patients with hormone issues, fatigue, and issues sleeping, I often test their melatonin levels.  This tells me if they are producing enough at night when it should be high and they should be sleepy.  If it is low, I often have them supplement with melatonin for a short time while making the following lifestyle changes:

  • No TV an hour before bed
  • No reading in bed
  • Dim lights an hour before bed
  • No computer work after dark
  • Do not use your phone an hour before bed
  • Turn your phone on airplane mode if used as an alarm
  • No TV in the bedroom

If someone is working on their overall lifestyle changes, melatonin is not needed as a crutch after a short period.  Since it is a hormone, I do not advise supplementing with it long-term because you need your body to have signals appropriate to create melatonin on its own.  If you continually supplement, then you will still likely have poor cortisol patterns and still won’t have a natural production of enough melatonin.

Uses for melatonin:

  • jet lag
  • sleep disturbance
  • adrenal fatigue

I typically recommend somewhere around 1g at night.  If you take too much, sometimes people will experience nightmares or wake up very groggy.  Kids can also benefit from melatonin, but their dosage should be between 300-500mg depending on weight.  Like I said, this should be SHORT TERM.  If you find it is helping sleep patterns but they come right back when you discontinue supplementing, that is a clear indication that you haven’t corrected the underlying issues causing abnormal hormone production.

*You can find high grade melatonin in the online store, Fullscript.  However, I recommend getting a cortisol/hormone panel done prior to self diagnosing.  These tests are done at home and run around $200.