How to Use Your Body Clock to Beat Jet Lag
What’s your body clock, anyway?
Your body runs on circadian rhythms patterns in biological processes that repeat every day. And those cadences are controlled by an internal clock.
Where is the body clock?In the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, above where the optic nerves cross, is a group of about 20,000 nerve cells known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Influenced by light, it controls your body’s production of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin. When light levels are low, like at night, the SCN tells your brain to churn out melatonin, which makes you sleepy.
“The tick and tock of your body clock can really affect your health,” says Michael Smolensky, PhD, cofounder and former director of the Memorial Hermann Chronobiology Center at the University of Texas. Follow these tips for keeping your cycles in sync so you can feel better, boost your immunity, sleep more deeply, and more.
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Camping can reset your body clock
Do you struggle to doze off at a decent hour? The solution may be as simple as pitching a tent. When University of Colorado Boulder researchers sent people camping for a weekend, they found that after the participants returned to civilization, their evening rise in melatonin levels had shifted 1.4 hours earlier, and they went to sleep and woke up earlier than those who had stayed home.
This routine would work for most folks with typical sleep wake schedules. Go for a run. Assuming you’re healthy overall (especially cardio wise), your low body temp makes the morning good for endurance sports like jogging. Prep for a pitch. “Studies suggest this is when you have the best immediate recall,” says Smolensky. Take a quick nap. Your alertness dips now. Just keep your power nap short 20 minutes tops. Meet a pal for tennis. Your hand eye coordination is at its highest in the early evening. Eat dinner. Dine at least four hours before bed for better digestion and to lower your chance of heartburn. Relax in a hot bath. It triggers a rise and fall in body temp that helps you nod off faster; shoot for one hour before bed.
Jet lag is always a pain but you may feel worse when you travel from west to east. That’s because the body clock is actually slightly longer than 24 hours, says neurologist Alon Avidan, MD, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center: “It’s only about 30 minutes longer, but it means it’s easier to go west and lengthen your day, versus flying east and shortening it.” If you’re headed east, start moving your bedtime back about a half hour each night for several nights. When you land, resist the urge to head to your hotel and nap. “You want to get as much natural light as possible,” says Dr. Avidan. Do that for the next few nights, depending on how many time zones you’ve crossed. (A good rule of thumb: one night for every time zone.)
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Midnight munching can disrupt your body clock
Late night snacking may come back to haunt you. Food signals to the body that it’s time to be awake making it tougher for you to nod off and get a full night’s sleep, says Andrew W. Varga, MD, assistant professor of sleep medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. At the same time, your circadian rhythms affect how you metabolize food: “Eating late at night leads to a bigger blood sugar spike,” says Dr. Varga, “and fats are more likely to be stored as fat in the body, causing weight gain.”
Breus argues that most of us fit into one of four chronotypes.
If you’re a lion You’re an early riser who’s prone to a midafternoon slump and feels wiped out by early evening. for an energy boost, says Breus. and noon. You should tackle big projects in the morning and save your socializing for early evening, when your mood peaks. If you need to be up early, Breus suggests taking a walk outside first thing in the morning.
If you’re a dolphinYou’re familiar with the wee hours. But no matter how little sleep you get the night before, try to exercise in the morning to kick up your energy level.
Your immunity peaks in the morning
“Immune cell numbers and sensitivity to pathogens fluctuate over the course of the day,” says Adam Silver, PhD, assistant professor of biology at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. “It’s believed that our immune system evolved to be at its peak when we are most likely to encounter pathogens, so it makes sense we’d see a heightened immune response in the morning, at the beginning of our active period.”
Plus, your arms will thank you: Smolensky’s research has shown that people who get vaccinations early in the day are less likely to experience redness, soreness, or hardness at the injection site.