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Jet Lag

February 16, 2017

Successful scientists spend more time in aircraft than in the laboratory. More than one Nobel laureate has complained that winning the Nobel Prize prevented him from doing any science for the subsequent several years.[1] While prominent scientists will have technicians or graduate students to handle the routine work in the laboratory, a real scientist takes joy in such work.

A frequent lunchtime topic of conversation at my corporate research laboratory was methods to ameliorate jet lag. Jet lag was a major problem for us, since our production facilities extended over the breadth of the United States (later, worldwide), and our research center was in the Eastern Time Zone.

Normally skeptical scientists were not hesitant to try the many home remedies for jet lag. My remedy was much better, avoiding travel as much as possible. Today, there's the similar problem of the international teleconference that has some employees connecting too late at night, or too early in the morning.

Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963

"Leaving on a Jet Plane" was a 1969 hit record by the music group, Peter, Paul and Mary.

Composed by John Denver, it had the recurrent lyric, "I'm leavin' on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again..."

(Wikimedia Commons image, modified for artistic effect.)

WebMD has published some tips to alleviate jet lag, as follow:[2]

• 1. Shift to your new schedule before your trip. This means shifting your meals to a slightly later time each day, and getting to bed a little later each night when you will be travelling west.
• 2. Reset all your clocks to the destination time while in flight, and try to schedule sleep at the proper new time.
• 3. Try to arrive a day or two early.
• 4. Stay hydrated, and avoid dehydrating beverages such as alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
• 5. Move around.
• 6. A melatonin supplement might work, but the scientific evidence for its beneficial affect is still weak. You should ask your physician first.
• 7. Try light therapy; that is, adjust the lighting in your environment to match that of the destination.
• 8. Near bedtime, don't eat high carbohydrate or fatty foods that might interfere with sleep.
• 9. Take a hot bath before bedtime. This might make you sleepy.
• 10. Minimize sleep distractions, such as room light, when you're trying to sleep.
• 11. In extreme cases, you might want to have your physician prescribe, or suggest, medications to help you sleep, or help keep you awake.

Professional athletes, like professional scientists, do a lot of travel; and, similarly to scientists, their performance suffers from lack of sleep. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost the recent AFC Championship to their arch-rival, the New England Patriots, 36-17. Interestingly, someone pulled the fire alarm in the Steeler's hotel the night before that game, causing the players to lose sleep.[3] It's reported that the same happened on two nights at the Patriot's hotel during the 2015 Super Bowl.[3]

There are many more college football players than professional football players. In 2016, the University of Arizona was awarded an NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant to study sleep habits in college athletes.[4] Says Michael Grandner, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology and director of the Sleep & Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine,

"Some of the most prominent effects of disturbed sleep can be reduced physical performance, reduced mental and cognitive performance, reduced recovery time from injury and worse mental health."[4]

The study surveyed 189 University of Arizona student-athletes. While at least 8-9 hours of sleep is recommended for such individuals, 68% reported poor sleep quality, 87% got less than, or equal to, eight hours of sleep, and 43% got less than seven hours.[4] Forty student-athletes were enrolled in an intervention program in which Fitbits were used to monitor progress. 83% of these said their sleep was better, and nearly 89% thought that their athletic performance was improved.[4]

Two neurobiologists and a statistician at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) have just published a study on the affect of jet lag on the performance of a cohort of athletes who often travel east-west through one or several time zones, Major League Baseball players.[5-7] Their database was extensive, spanning 20 years from 1992-2011, and more than 40,000 games.[7] In their analysis, the researchers considered whether the travel was east or west, if the team was home or away, and the number of hours players would be jet-lagged.[7] As can be seen from the figure, there was enough data for statistical significance.

Jet lag in Major League Baseball

Jet lag events for Major League Baseball teams for the years 1992-2011, segmented by hours lag, east or west, and whether the team was playing at home after travel, or away.

(Graphed using Gnumeric from data in ref. 6.)

The study results were as expected. Jet-lag affect on performance was evident after eastward travel, but not for westward travel.[5,7] While jet lag negatively affected both home and away defensive performance, specifically by giving up more home runs, it did not affect away-team offensive performance, such as hits.[5,7] Away-team offensive performance was generally not affected.[7] Offensive performance relates to base running, stolen bases, number of doubles and triples, and double plays.[7]

Says Ravi Allada, a professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University and leader of the study that was funded by the The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,

"Jet lag does impair the performance of Major League Baseball players... The negative effects of jet lag we found are subtle, but they are detectable and significant. And they happen on both offense and defense and for both home and away teams, often in surprising ways... If I were a baseball manager and my team was traveling across time zones - either to home or away - I would send my first starting pitcher a day or two ahead, so he could adjust his clock to the local environment."[7]

Yogi Berra image from a 1953 bubble gum baseball card.

"Flying to games is difficult, but it would be harder without airplanes."

While baseball legend, Yogi Berra (1925-2015), didn't really say this (I made it up), it sounds like a typical Yogi-ism.

(Image from a 1953 bubble gum baseball card, via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Ian Sample, "What are the downsides of winning a Nobel prize?" The Guardian (UK), October 15, 2012.
  2. Camille Peri, "How to Cope With Jet Lag," Web MD, January 19, 2010.
  3. Ed Bouchette, "False fire alarm at hotel forces 3 a.m. wake-up for Steelers," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 22, 2017.
  4. Alexis Blue, "Intervention Could Help Student-Athletes Sleep," University of Arizona Press Release, January 19, 2017.
  5. Alex Song, Thomas Severini, and Ravi Allada, "How jet lag impairs Major League Baseball performance," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., Early Edition, January 17, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1608847114.
  6. Supplemental information for ref. 5.
  7. Megan Fellman, "Jet lag impairs performance of major league baseball players," Northwestern University Press Release, January 23, 2017.

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