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April 24th, 2009
05:37 PM ET

How jet lag affects our brains

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

It’s funny sometimes how our work content crosses over into our real lives. A case of art imitating life? For the last several weeks, I have been jet lagged, big time. It started when I was in India a few weeks ago. The trip there wasn’t bad and I managed to get on a schedule pretty quickly once I hit the ground. Once I got back, though, I had a very hard time shaking it. About a week later, I was still lying awake at 3 a.m. feeling as if I had been run over by a Mack truck. Right when I getting back on track, I flew to the West Coast and started the whole process all over again. And, I just got in from LA late last night. No question, I do travel a lot, but I was always curious: What is really happening in my brain when I am jet lagged?

The area of the brain that is most crucial to all of this is the hypothalamus. It is a key area of the brain, and most specifically the suprachiasmatic nucleus (that’s a name to remember…) contains tens of thousands of neurons whose main function is to regulate our circadian rhythms, our body clocks. (read jet lag study) In neurosurgical terms, this area is completely “out of whack” when we travel. But, it is more than that.

There are two types of neurons that individually represent our deep sleep and REM sleep. The deep sleep neurons do synch up within a day, even after a significant overseas trip but it is those neurons overseeing REM sleep that take much longer. Without REM sleep, which is the type of sleep that allows you to dream, you are going to feel more fatigued, have lapses in memory and general decreased performance.

Now, as you might imagine, researchers who figured this out in rats have already told us they are looking into the possibility of a “jet lag” drug to target the suprachiasmatic neurons in the hypothalamus regulating REM sleep patterns (I feel smart just writing that). Yes, I am convinced that one day there will be a pill for everything, but I am not a big fan of pills, so here are some techniques I have learned over the years. (watch Sanjay's personal tips)

I immediately change my clock to the new time zone when getting on the plane. If possible, I will try to go to bed an hour earlier each night for a couple of nights prior to the trip. As you might imagine, starting off sleep deprived is not a good idea. I take eye blinders and a heavy sweater on all flights, so I can sleep even during daylight. As I mentioned, sleeping pills aren’t really my thing, though I have a few frequent traveler friends who swear by melatonin. In case you can’t remember how to take this supplement, think of it as the “darkness hormone.” It is made when it is dark outside and suppressed by light. You take it about an hour before bedtime – of your new location.

Please excuse all typos – I was jet lagged when I wrote this. And, I was wondering if you had any more tips to ward off jet lag to help me and other travelers?

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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Mike

    Hi Sanjay,

    Simply take a blood pressure pill like Enalapril before bed time, this knock you right out and you will feel good the next morning.

    April 25, 2009 at 06:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. nicholas taylor

    DR. GUPTA ,i watched the special on addiction. It was good,but i believe you could have gone deeper. Myself being a recovering addict with almost 4 years clean.There is a place called the Coalition for the homeless in Orlando Fl. where you dont need insurance.The only thing you need is desire to stop using drugs. Now you will probably say o.k. no big deal.The difference is, drugs are being sold down the street. Your not locked up behind a gate you can come and go as you please after 30 days.And when you come in the program you dont get a bed, you get a 2 inch mat to sleep on until you test negative for drugs then you can move into the dorm.Of course there are chores to do and groups, which i chair 2 of them because, i need to give back what was given to me.So DR.GUPTA if you ever happen to do another special on addiction.Take time out to see the other side, because all we have is a desire to stay clean.

    April 25, 2009 at 08:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Maudie

    I'm reading this as I am very jet lagged just back from the east coast for a week yesterday (home on west coast now). It takes me about 3 days before I start getting back to my routine. I'm just totally useless and on top of it, can't go to sleep til i pass out from pure fatigue. I have a hard time sleeping at 35,000 feet up in the air when flying. I keep thinking about that (being 35,000 feet up). I thought I was in a depression and then have to force myself to get up and do the basic activities to sustain life (drink, eat and that's about it). So thank you for the tips and reassurance. Sorry for the grammatical errors in my writing, but right now, i really don't care.

    April 25, 2009 at 20:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Anita

    I travel a lot as well and do the same as you, with setting my watch to the new time right away. As well, I won't let myself nap when I arrive to a new destination. I ride it out until my regular bedtime – give or take – and find I am usually good to go. Oh...and ALWAYS stay hydrated and don't drink too much alcohol during the trip, for that reason alone. You don't want a booze AND lack-of-sleep hangover! Happy trails...

    April 26, 2009 at 04:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Amy

    We use melatonin and it does seem to help. Also, I read somewhere that if you get out in the sun for at least 20 minutes (at your destination), that helps "reset" the body clock too. And no heavy meals the first couple days while you are adjusting....

    April 27, 2009 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Alish

    The Argonne National Laboratory's "ant-jet lag diet" has worked perfectly for me for years in traveling from U.S. to Asia cross-Pacific.

    Business travelers use it a lot, and when followed strictly, it all but eliminates jet lag. When I use it, it seems to cancel out the effects of about 10-11 hours of a 12-13 hour (depending on Daylight Savings changes( time difference. It is very useful and perfectly effective, It is available online be searching for Argonne NL's website, or the diet's name and "Argonne." I don't use any other medications or substances besides the diet recommended, and it works very well.

    April 28, 2009 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Leanne

    As a former road warrior (now my two boys, both in diapers keeps me busy thank you!) I swear by a few things.

    1. Hydration! I drink a lot of water anyway as I live in Arizona, but when I am gearing up for a trip to the east coast of overseas I really start increasing my water intake. I also start avoiding alcohol and limit caffeine.

    2. Vitamin and mineral supplements- I take one regularly for women, but I increase the B's and find it helps with energy and mood while traveling.

    3. Diet- I increase my protein and eat every few hours to keep momentum going.

    4. Sleep- The minute I get on the plane the headphones are on, neck pillow out and wrapped in my pashmina- By the time I land, I feel pretty good and can usually get a decent night's sleep and be 100% by morning.

    I know none of this is new information, but it all works for me.

    Safe and Happy Travels!

    April 28, 2009 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Sunil

    I use the eye blinders/shades while on long flights and sleep a lot on the plane. You will not be disturbed for eating by the flight attendants if you have your blinders on, as I've experienced. Carry and drink enough water, something to eat in case you get up hungry and find that the catering services are closed. The flights stick to their catering schedules and expect you to respond to services so they can manage time and needs ot hundreds of passengers on board in a timely manner. I have travelled extensively in the last 20 odd years over multiple timezones and this works great. I agree that pills are not the solution.

    April 28, 2009 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. alex

    The No-Sleep Method
    I found that this method really works for me. Lets say that you are traveling to Asia, and you are arriving at night. The best thing to do is just not sleep at all on the whole trip (watch like 4 movies). By the time you get there, you are so tired, and fall right to sleep. Perfect, no jet lag!

    April 29, 2009 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. sperry

    Plan ahead and order fruit plates for your flight, and continue on fruit and raw veggies when possible for the first 24-48 hours of flight and after landing.
    No white flour/white sugar, soda pop or caffiene except one cup of coffee in the a.m. Stay well hydrated.
    Consider ginger ale (or ginger in tablet form) to keep nausea to minimum from change in your time schedule.
    AFTER second day resume normal activities.
    **This worked many times for me and my daughter when traveling from Atlanta to California many times. We used melatonin in the evenings at bedtime to synchonise our sleep patterns.

    May 6, 2009 at 15:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Akash Kumar M.D.

    Maybe this was unintentional, but it sounds pretty pretentious to say "in neurosurgical terms". It's just neuroscience. Psychiatrists, Ph.D.s, and neurologists are doing this research, not neurosurgeons.. so it's hard to understand why you would say that except to remind people that you are a neurosurgeon. It's a great accomplishment to be a neurosurgeon, but it's strange to go out of your way to work it into a blog post.

    June 30, 2010 at 23:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Clint Koehne

    Divorce Attorney

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    August 3, 2016 at 11:51 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.