There is no escaping jet lag: Why daytime naps are the worst approach to adjusting

By Mary Kekatos | DailyMail | Sep 06, 2018

  • Jet lag occurs when your body quickly travels across time zones faster than your inner body clock, or circadian rhythm, can reset 
  • Our bodies only have the ability to adjust for one day of travel per time zone
  • Sleep expert Dr Joseph Ojile explains how we can prepare to combat jet lag well ahead of our big trip

Taking a long-haul flight most certainly means combating the effects of jet lag.

Symptoms can range from fatigue to stress to difficulty concentrating – which can hinder both a business trip and a vacation.

While we are all looking for a quick fix so we can get about our day, it turns out there is no such thing.

There is no cure for your biological clock and your time zone being out of sync, but there are tips you can follow to minimize this consequence of faraway travel.

Dr Joseph Ojile, founder of the Clayton Sleep Institute in Missouri, reveals why it can take days for us to adjust, why ‘traveling west is best’, and how having a glass of wine on the plane can worsen jet lag’s effects.


Jet lag, also known as time zone change syndrome, occurs when your body quickly travels across time zones.

You have traveled faster than the ability of your body to reset its inner clock, what is known as your circadian rhythm.

This is particularly rough if you travel from west to east, such as from San Francisco to New York. 

When it’s 11pm Eastern Time in New York, and you know you should be going to sleep, your body is telling you it’s actually 8pm Pacific Time. 

‘The general rule of thumb is “East is least and West is best” when it comes to traveling and jet lag,’ Dr Ojile told Daily Mail Online.

‘It’s a lot nicer to go West because you land and effectively are just staying up before you go to bed.

‘But when you go East, it’s your night but their morning so you’ve got to get up and get moving.’ 


Our biological clocks are synchronized to light-dark changes and regulate multiple physiological processes including patterns of body temperature, brain activity and hormone production.

There are two internal body clocks that regulate your sleep-wake cycle. 

The first is called the homeostatic sleep drive, which balances sleep and wakefulness.

A chemical by-product called adenosine builds up in the brain the longer you are  awake and, while you sleep, adenosine breaks down.

Not getting enough sleep can leave you with high adensoine levels and make you feel dazed and groggy.

‘The way I like to teach homeostatic sleep drive to people is to think about it like a pitcher of water,’ said Dr Ojile.

‘You and I, our wakefulness early in the morning is like a full pitcher. But over the course of the day, you pour out that wakefulness so by the end of the day you’re tired again.’

The other clock is our daily, or circadian, rhythm, which is located behind the optic nerves in our eyes, in a region of the brain. 

Light is the main cue that influences circadian rhythms. When the sun rises, the brain sends signals to the pineal gland to suppress production of melatonin, the hormone that controls when you are awake and when you go to sleep.

But when the sun sets, the pineal gland receives signals to secrete melatonin to make you drowsy

If your body doesn’t receive these signals, however, your circadian rhythm can be completely thrown off.

Normally these clocks are aligned. But, because they work in very different ways, they can be out of sync when you travel.

Your adenosine levels can be very high because you’ve gotten very little sleep, but your circadian rhythm is telling you that it’s day due to sunlight. This make it difficult to go to sleep. 

‘Your wakefulness peak comes when you’re trying to go to sleep,’ said Dr Ojile.

‘Those two clocks are out of whack with each other and they need a little bit of time to get back in sync.

‘At 4.30am or 5.00am, you’re usually snoozing in the States. But if you’re in Paris, you’d be walking around because it’s daytime so you’re doing activities at the worst possible biological time.’


We all know common symptoms of jet lag including fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and even mood changes.

But it can also result in physical changes to our bodies. 

A 2010 study conducted by the University of California Berkeley discovered that chronic jet lag left changes in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memories and learning ability.

And a study just released today from Toho University in Japan found jet lag could trigger diabetes.

Losing a single night’s sleep affects the liver’s ability to produce insulin, which helps control blood glucose levels.

This increases the risk of developing diseases linked to metabolism – such as type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease.
There have been attempts to help those experiencing jet lag adjust faster to their new locations.

A study conducted last year by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland found that a group of cells in the eye directly communicate with the brain.

By altering their signaling – via eye drops – this could help you adjust to a new time zone, the researchers said.

And, this year, a high-tech sleep mask was put on the market using light-flash technology, developed by researchers at Stanford University Medical School in California.

The mask sends pulses of light – similar to a camera flash – that stimulate light sensitive nerves in the brain that send signals to suppress or produce melatonin.

‘There’s honesty in saying you can’t make [jet lag] go away but there are things that you have control over that can make it less problematic for travel and enjoyment,’ Dr Ojile said.

‘Sometimes it’s nice to know if we have a certain degree to change the outcome, to be able to say: “Hey I can participate in this and make this better”.’


We’ve all been told that when we’re adjusting to a new time zone, we should stay awake until it’s time to go to sleep in our new time zone and wake up when it’s morning to ‘reset’ our circadian rhythm.

This, however, does not work.

If you drive or travel by bus or train, your body has the ability to gradually adjust to time zone changes.

However, our bodies haven’t adapted to the point that we can quickly change those rhythms. In fact, our bodies are only capable of adjusting to one to two time zone changes per day.

So if you travel across three time zones, you could need up to three days to fully recover. But why does it take so long?

A 2013 study from Oxford University conducted on mice found that around 100 genes are activated in response to light and work to ‘retune’ your internal clock.

However, there is one molecule, known as SIK1, that works to limit the effects of light on the clock – essentially preventing the body clock from readjusting.

When scientists blocked SIK1 activity, the mice were able to more quickly adjust to light cycle changes.


‘You can do lots of things to ease jet lag, lots of things to minimize your effects, but there’s no easy “cure” for it,’ Dr Ojile said.

One recommendation he makes is to start resetting your internal; body clock before your trip.

‘Start going to bed earlier, two or three days before your trip, and then get up at 5am or 6am,’ Dr Ojile said.

‘You start to move your time clock and then by the time you travel, if you travel West to East, you’re only three time zones behind instead of six.’

Dr Ojile says there are also melatonin supplements you can take, which can help you go to sleep.

Another adjustment you can make comes while you’re on the plane.

‘I would recommend avoiding alcohol and avoiding heavy, fatty foods,’ Dr Ojile said.

‘Get on the plane and have something light to eat, something healthy. These heavy foods can exacerbate jet lag because all of a sudden it’s 3am in your brain and daytime where you land.

‘Not only does it contribute to you feeling sluggish but also to you not getting enough sleep on the plane.’