Can Antioxidants Prevent Jet Lag?

Back when I was in holistic nutrition school I had a teacher mention that jet lag was not caused by changing time zones, as is commonly believed, but by exposure to a greater degree of radiation from being so far from ground level with its layers of atmospheric protection. At the time I thought this was very interesting and filed it away in my brain as something I should do more research on in the future.

Flash forward to today when I came across this article about a study done by the US National Institutes of Health, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the American Cancer Society. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looks at ionizing radiation, which people are exposed to during flights.

According to the article, ionizing radiation increases at higher altitudes like those achieved in commercial flights. It also said that ionizing radiation was powerful enough to make molecules in the body lose electrons (therefore creating free radicals which in turn damages DNA). This made a light go on in my head – perhaps this is the type of radiation my teacher had been talking about being a cause of jet lag.

The study looked at pilots and flight crews since airborne airline workers are exposed to the highest average dose of ionizing radiation compared to any other profession, (even those who work in nuclear power plants!). The researchers postulated that DNA damage caused by radiation during flights could be combated with antioxidants. They looked at the diets of 82 airline pilots and compared levels of antioxidant vitamins C and E and carotenoid phytonutrients with DNA damage markers in the pilots.

What the researchers found was that higher than average antioxidants in the diet led to lower levels of DNA damage. Above average consumption of vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables lead to 39 per cent lower cumulative DNA damage, “while citrus fruit and green leafy vegetables were associated with 36 and 41 per cent reductions, respectively.” The highest protection was predictably offered by above average consumption of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and other carotenoids, (beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin) combined, which lead to a 73% reduction DNA damage.

The researchers in this study were interested in these findings as a possible cancer preventative strategy, however, a recent study out of Germany found that the overall occurrence of cancer is lower among aircrews than in the general population. So much for that idea. But even if it isn’t increasing your chances of giving you cancer, could radiation from flight travel be what’s giving you jet lag?

I would speculate that it may have something to do with it. DNA damage from ionizing radiation exposure during air travel is a given and one would think that the body is likely to find concentrated damage to the DNA to be off-putting. Perhaps enough to lead one to a messed up sleep schedule, insomnia, fatigue, grogginess and irritability; all the symptoms of jet lag. And if antioxidants help prevent damage from ionizing radiation then, again speculation here, perhaps loading up on antioxidants before flights could reduce or even eliminate jet lag.

The only problem with this theory of mine is that jet lag is supposed to only affect people traveling in an east-west direction, since north-south travel doesn’t cross any time zones and thus won’t mess with the body’s natural sleep-wake cycles. I admit, I haven’t really been able to test this out as all my longer travels have tended to be in an east-west direction. If north-south travel indeed causes no jet lag then I suppose this theory is out the window. Nonetheless, I’ll be loading up on my antioxidants before air travel from now on. Even if it isn’t responsible for jet lag, avoiding damage to my DNA is high on my list of priorities.

Author by Doug DiPasquale