3 Light therapy remedies for jet lag worth trying
By Jason Wooden, PhD | December 7, 2019
More people than ever before are traveling by air and crossing three or more time zones can upset the body’s natural 24-hour clock. There’s growing interest in light therapy and other natural remedies for jet lag.
Light therapy for jet lag involves exposing yourself to bright light at specified times to help reset the body’s sleep-wake clock. There’s a range of options which vary in cost and convenience. Your choices include going outside for natural sunlight, portable light boxes, and light therapy glasses.
In this article, we’ll talk about:
- What light therapy does to the body to help jet lag
- 3 light therapy remedies for jet lag
- Other natural remedies for jet lag
Why jet lag can make travel a curse
With more people on the move than ever before, there is growing interest in light therapy for jet lag.
Modern airplanes are a marvel making it possible to travel great distance in hours but feeling crappy for days once you reach your final destination can be grueling.
Did you know that over 4 billion passengers flew on airlines in 2017?
Whether you’re traveling for business or for pleasure, jet lag can make travel a curse.
Jet lag is what happens when travel across time zones and your body’s clock is out of sync with local time. Flying through three or more times can upset the body’s natural 24-hour clock.
The more time zones you travel across, the worse your jet lag can be once it kicks in at your destination.
For many, it may take days for their body clock to rest to the new time zone. Meanwhile, the body tells you to sleep during the day and to stay awake at night.
All of which may leave you feeling miserably over-tired, disoriented, moody, unable to function, and dealing with an upset stomach.
Sleeping pills may help, but they can cost you later – headaches, dizziness, confusion, and feeling too drowsy to do anything the next day.
One of the hottest natural remedies for jet lag is light therapy devices, but do they really work? You may also be wondering whether natural sunlight can help jet lag.
Let’s take a look at what we know and some light therapy options worth giving a try.
How light therapy helps the body fight jet lag
The body’s sleep-wake cycle is what tells your body when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be awake. Your body is in tune with day and night through sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin which help regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
Sunlight signals your body through your eyes to stop making melatonin which is why it falls during the day and creeps up as it gets dark.
Bright light from an artificial source such as a light box can have the same effect. It can stop the body from making melatonin which in turn can stimulate “wakefulness”.
It’s drug-free and natural, although there are some possible side effects, especially if light therapy used the wrong way. They include eyestrain, fatigue, nausea, irritability, and insomnia.
Some may experience headaches if they’re already disposed to them. (According to the American Thoracic Society, most of the side effects are fairly mild and usually resolve over time.)
Nonetheless, that’s how light therapy can help with jet lag: you expose yourself to bright light to help the body reset its natural sleep-wake clock.
Light therapy remedies for jet lag
Okay, so far, we’ve talked about how exposing yourself to bright light can help reset the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. It’s been found to be helpful for sleep problems in clinical studies.
Whether it’s outdoor daylight or light therapy devices, the idea is the same – you expose yourself to bright light for a certain amount of time which signals the brain through your eyes to help adjust to a new time zone.
1) Natural sunlight for jet lag
Can sunlight help with jet lag? The obvious answer is yes. After all, that is how our bodies are naturally wired. In general, the idea is to get out and absorb sunlight during the morning and afternoon once you’ve reached your final destination.
Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of natural sunlight each day. Since sun glasses may limit the eye’s access to full sunlight, it’s important to get some shades-free daylight exposure.
– no special equipment needed
– added benefits when combined with physical activity
– can combine with other activities
Cons: may sometimes be inconvenient or unavailable
How to get it: go outside!
2) Light box therapy for jet lag
Light boxes are designed to mimic outdoor light and have been tested in clinical studies. The original boxes were bulky, but there are now portable ones small enough to take on a trip.
Depending on the manufacturer, you position the lamp to the side of your face so you’re not looking directly into the light for a period of 15 – 60 minutes a day.
Pros: convenience, use anytime
-another thing to pack & carry
-power source needed
Cost: $29 – $39
3) Light therapy glasses for jet lag
These high-tech devices work by using small light-emitting diodes to bring the light source closer to the eye.
Depending on the manufacturer, they typically recommend you wear the glasses for 20 to 60-minute sessions to help your body adjust to a new time zone. Some provide online calculators to help you create a customized jet lag program.
– compact and portable
– ease of use
– less disruption
Cons: need to keep batteries charged
Cost: $100 – $250
Other things besides light therapy you can do for your jet lag
Don’t limit yourself to light therapy devices, there are other things you can also do to help you battle jet lag. For some, it makes sense to do them every day, whether you’re traveling or not.
When you’re traveling, there’s a lot that can take you out of your normal sleep routine and habits. That’s where sleep hygiene comes into play. It’s the every day things you do during the day and at night that can set the stage for quality sleep.
For better sleep hygiene once you reach your final travel destination, you should:
- Go to bed and wake up on time
- Avoid naps
- Exercise during the day
- Avoid large meals, alcohol, or stimulants such as caffeine in the evening
- Give yourself time to wind down before bed
- Keep your sleep environment quiet, dark, and cool
Sleep hygiene is just as important away from home to give yourself the best chance to get your sleep back on track.
Even though you may have less control over your environment, you try sleep aides such as a face mask for excessive nighttime lighting or earplugs if you’re in a noisy downtown area.
We’ve already talked about how the hormone melatonin is involved in the sleep-wake cycle. Research suggests that melatonin supplements may help with jet lag. Be sure to consult with a doctor about whether it’s right for you and the best way to use it on your trip.
Physical activity is another natural remedy to help with jet lag. It’s long been known to improve sleep quality and duration. More recent research suggest that moderate exercise can more directly help fight jet leg. Get out for a brisk walk during the day and you’ll get the added benefit sunlight exposure.
Online you’ll find a variety of homeopathic supplements formulated to fight jet lag. While most have not been clinically tested in studies, they may help with jet lag symptoms. To be sure, check with a complementary health specialist (i.e., naturopathic physician, herbalist).
Tips to Prevent Jet Lag
- Exercise, eat healthy
- Get plenty of rest
- Start going to bed later (if traveling west) or earlier (if traveling east)
- Change watch to destination local time
- Avoid large meals, alcohol, caffeine
- Get up and stretch your legs periodically
After You Arrive:
- Stay up until 10P local time
- Eat at the appropriate time
- Avoid heavy meals, excess alcohol, caffeine
- If sleepy, take a short nap
Sources: CDC, National Sleep Foundation
More useful light therapy and jet lag links:
1. “Traveler Numbers Reach New Heights”, 2018, International Air Transport Association website
2. “Jet lag disorder”, MedlinePlus website
3. Jet Lag: Current and Potential Therapies, P T. 2011;36(4):221-31.
4. “Overcoming Jet Lag”, Cleveland Clinic website
5. “What is the Sleep/Wake Cycle?”, National Sleep Foundation website
6. “Sleep and Circadian Rhythm”, Endocrine Society website
7. Light and Cognition: Roles for Circadian Rhythms, Sleep, and Arousal. Front Neurol. 2018 Feb 9;9:56.
8. “How Light Therapy Glasses Improve Sleep and Mood”, 2019, Verywell health website
9. “Artificial Bright Light Therapy for Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorders”, Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2019 Sep 15;200(6):P11-P12.
10. The effects of light therapy on sleep problems: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med Rev. 2016 Oct;29:52-62.
11. “Are You Sleep-Deprived? Learn More About Healthy Sleep”, 2012, Medline Plus
12. Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health, Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Apr; 116(4): A160–A167.
13. “Melatonin: What You Need To Know”, NIH website
14. “Exercise Can Shift Body Clock, Possibly Countering Jet Lag and Other Circadian Disorders”,2019, Sleep Review website
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