Holiday season special – Is jet lag bad for my skin?

It is well known that stress makes our skin age prematurely. One of the mechanisms of action is an increase in cortisol levels (one of our main stress hormones).

However, what most people don’t know is that not getting enough sleep is arguably one of the most significant forms of stress.

… and a major consequence of jet lag is of course sleep deprivation!

Good quality restorative sleep is crucial for cellular repair, regeneration and immune function. Not only that, but it has also been shown that sleep deprivation causes systemic inflammation throughout our body. Even a relatively short period of reduced or disturbed sleep has been found to increase blood measures of inflammation.

In fact, changes brought about by sleep deprivation have been found to be similar to those observed during aging. So sleep deprivation is thought to increase age-related processes as well as chronic health problems.

Sufficient sleep is also important for the nightly peak of our natural anti-ageing hormone HH (human growth hormone). This not only helps us look younger, but also helps to repair tissue! However, when we don’t get enough sleep, our natural HGH level is sub-optimal (…and this gets worse as we get older).

And it doesn’t stop there. At night we naturally release the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin, which is a powerful antioxidant and one of our youth hormones.

Melatonin levels start to rise in the evening and peak around midnight before slowly subsiding again. This diurnal sleep-wake cycle is governed by the changes of light and darkness.

However, if we don’t get enough sleep, our melatonin levels are not optimal. Interestingly, melatonin has also been shown to be able to protect our skin from the sun’s damaging effects and counteracts mitochondrial and DNA damage. Unfortunately, like so many other skin-friendly hormones, our melatonin level declines with age. Sleep debt will accelerate this natural decline.

Sleep deprivation is also known to impair insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance and we know that higher blood sugar levels lead to generation of more Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs), which significantly accelerate the skin’s ageing process.

Sleep is also connected to telomere length, a marker for our biological age. Shorter telomeres have for example been connected to poorer sleep quality in women and shorter sleep in men.

So lack of sleep really is a powerful age accelerator and can even significantly affect our genes. In a fascinating genomic study, it was shown that sleep debt of only two nights led to a change in the expression of more than 500 genes! These changes were notably related to DNA damage and repair as well as stress and immune system responses.

Lastly, another study clearly links good sleep to better skin and the ability to recover from stress. Scientists from the University Hospitals of Cleveland assessed sleep quality in women aged 30 to 50 using a special sleep questionnaire. They then compared this data to signs of the women’s internal (biological clock) and external (premature) skin ageing. What they found was that poor sleepers had significantly higher scores for internal ageing than good sleepers, who managed seven to nine hours per night.

The other thing jet lag does is of course completely messing up your internal body clock (‘circadian rhythm’). The circadian rhythm is an endogenous time-keeping system that monitors a daily cycle of roughly 24 hours. It’s our body’s master pacemaker, regulating most of the physiological functions in our body, including hormone release. A disruption of this internal clock is associated with ageing, while trying to keep to our natural rhythm improves our wellbeing and increases our lifespan.

A study looking at the connection between sleep and longevity characterized the sleep patterns of people with a high life span (85 to 105 year olds) and compared these to other groups. The outcome confirmed the importance of maintaining strictly regular sleep-wake schedules.

… sooo, coming back to the question “Is jet lag back for my skin?” my answer would be that it’s certainly not great, as we know about all of those physiological dysfunctions that happen when we get into sleep depth and upset our natural body clock.

However, having said that if it’s only every now and then, say two or three times per year, I would say don’t worry too much about it, as the degree of damage is unlikely to be significant.

If however, you are a frequent long-distance flight passenger, then this might very well contribute to premature skin ageing.

In any case make sure to get as much sleep on the flight as possible, if it’s overnight (skip the movies…) and consider taking a melatonin supplement to get your body clock back into rhythm as quickly as possible. Also, a good cosmeceutical skincare regime will help to repair some of the damage occurred!