Given the New England Patriots’ unfortunate tendency to lag lately near game’s end, many a fan may dread the prospect of adding jet lag to the mix when the team plays the St. Louis Rams in London this Sunday.
I asked Dr. Aran Kadar, co-director of the Sleep Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, what he would advise the Patriots if he were coaching them. His reply, lightly edited:
The first thing that comes to mind is that these guys are so big, I’d want to screen all of them for sleep apnea, jet lag or no jet lag, especially the linebackers.
With jet lag, your normal circadian rhythm—the peaks and valleys of many biological functions across the 24 hour day—are out of sync with actual day and night times at your destination. If you travel across time zones, there are consequences that can affect performance, such as fatigue or difficulty concentrating.
Also, at different times of day, people have different peak levels of performance in terms of their ability to stretch or do strength tasks, that kind of thing. So you’re taking elite athletes and giving them some element of fatigue from traveling, and then you also may have them playing at a time when it may not be their peak performance.
What would I tell the team if I were coaching them? What you want to do if you’re traveling East is one of two things:
• Go there early enough to have four or five days to adjust before you play the game. Usually it takes about one day for every time zone that you cross to adjust.
• You could also speed up the process by getting yourself to start going to bed earlier and earlier in the days leading up to the trip. For the UK, it’s a difference of five or six time zones. Say your normal bedtime is midnight, but midnight is going to be 5 a.m. there, and at midnight in the UK, it’s going to be 7 p.m. here, so you’re going to feel like it’s much too early to go to bed.
Two other ways to mitigate jet lag:
• Especially when you’re traveling to the East, try to get bright light in the afternoon at your destination. Not in the morning because that would be counterproductive, but in the afternoon, that can help your biological clock adjust.
• Melatonin. I don’t know whether it’s on any forbidden list for elite athletes, but melatonin can speed up the process for people to adjust to jet lag. A New England Journal of Medicine study used melatonin at bedtime, and it had a modest but statistically significant effect in speeding up how quickly people adjusted. They had fewer complaints of jet lag symptoms.
No other pharmacological twists?
There are clinical trials under way to study narcolepsy medications for jet lag, but that hasn’t been approved yet.
Some people take sleeping pills, though I’m not crazy about using a sleeping pill on the airplane. But the idea is that when you fly East, you’re trying to go to bed earlier than usual, and that’s harder than when you fly West and just need to stay up late.
So some people use a sleeping pill to go to bed when they’re not feeling tired; but in the middle of the day, if your body feels like it’s the middle of the night, you’re not going to feel good even if you’ve slept. If you do use a sleeping pill, you want to make sure it’s short-acting; you don’t want an elite athlete groggy the following day.
Another suggestion I would add for the Patriots, or any travelers, is to try to get enough sleep. No matter how well adjusted one is to a time zone, if you don’t leave yourself enough time to sleep, you will be fatigued. Sleep researchers published an interesting experiment at Stanford where they had members of the basketball team extend their sleep time for weeks, and measured improvements in several aspects of performance.
All in all, from a sleep point of view, there are definitely some things the Patriots could do to improve they’re performance — and if they’re well-rested, even if they lose, they’ll be able to cope better with the defeat.