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How to Cope With Jet Lag

What is jet lag and why do you get it?
By Camille Peri
WebMD Feature

For frequent fliers and international travelers, the symptoms of jet lag are all too familiar. Disturbed sleep, daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating and functioning, and even stomach problems are a fact of life.

Fortunately, while you may not be able to eliminate jet lag altogether if you’re traveling across multiple time zones, you can lessen its effects with some simple strategies. First, it helps to understand what jet lag is and what causes it. Then, WebMD offers 11 ways to cope with jet lag and still enjoy your travel.  

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What Is Jet Lag?

Jet lag can occur any time you travel quickly across two or more time zones. The more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to be sleepy and sluggish -- and the longer and more intense the symptoms are likely to be.

Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder, but not temporary enough for many travelers. If you’re flying from San Francisco to Rome for a 10-day trip, for example, it may take six to nine days to fully recover. That’s because it can take up to a day for each time zone crossed for your body to adjust to the local time. If you’re traveling east to west, from Rome to San Francisco, jet lag could last four to five days -- about half the number of time zones crossed.  Jet lag is generally worse when you “lose time” traveling west to east.

If you’re an older adult, jet lag may hit you harder and recovery may take longer.

What Causes Jet Lag?

Jet lag happens because rapid travel throws off our circadian rhythm -- the biological clock that helps control when we wake and fall asleep. “Cues such as light exposure, mealtimes, social engagement, and activities regulate our circadian rhythm,” says Allison T. Siebern, PhD, a fellow in the Insomnia and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center. “When you cross time zones, it disrupts those, and your internal clock and the external time are desynchronized. Your body needs to get on the rhythm of the new time zone.”

Other aspects of air travel can aggravate the problem. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 found that air cabins pressurized to 8,000 feet lower oxygen in the blood, making passengers feel uncomfortable and dehydrated. And people don’t move around as much as usual on an airplane. “These can increase symptoms of jet lag and further disrupt your circadian rhythm from re-synchronizing,” says Siebern.

11 Tips for Dealing With Jet Lag

Some of these strategies may help prevent or ease jet lag:

1. Simulate your new schedule before you leave.

“If you’re traveling east, start moving your bedtime earlier,” says Avelino Verceles, MD, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the school’s sleep medicine fellowship. “Shift it a half-hour earlier each night for several nights before you leave.”

If you’re traveling west, do the opposite. You can also try moving your mealtimes closer to the time you’ll be taking them at your destination.

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