What Is Jet Lag?
Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder you can get after traveling quickly across multiple time zones. It happens because your internal body clock is not yet aligned with your new local time. So you might feel sleepy during the day and alert at night.
Jet Lag vs. Travel Fatigue
You could easily mistake jet lag for travel fatigue. But they're not the same.
Travel fatigue is when you feel extremely tired after a long road, rail, water, or air trip. You might also have a headache and feel mentally drained. But it's not a sleep disorder. A restful night’s sleep can help you feel better.
On the other hand, jet lag is a sleep disorder you only get after traveling quickly (usually flying) across at least two time zones. It only goes away when your body gets used to your new time zone.
You can have travel fatigue and jet lag at the same time.
What Causes Jet Lag?
Jet lag is a problem with your circadian rhythm, the body's internal sleep-and-wake schedule. Circadian rhythms are roughly 24-hour cycles that determine when you feel sleepy and when you feel alert, among other things.
These rhythms help control your body's production of melatonin, a hormone involved with sleep. They're guided by sunlight and other cues from your environment. But when you travel across several time zones within a short period, your body needs time to catch up. That's what leads to the symptoms of jet lag.
Who Is at Risk of Jet Lag?
Jet lag can happen to anyone. But you're at a higher risk of having it or having worse symptoms if you:
- Fly east: Studies suggest that people who travel east are likely to have more serious jet lag than those who fly west.
- Lose sleep: Losing sleep during an overnight flight can contribute to jet lag.
- Are naturally prone to it: Some people have lower tolerance than others to circadian misalignment.
- Fly frequently: People who fly frequently, such as pilots and flight attendants, are more likely to have jet lag.
- Are older: Jet lag worsens with age.
How common is it?
It's not clear exactly how many people jet lag affects, probably because people don’t see a doctor for it. But some estimates say 60% to 70% of people who travel long distances get it in varying degrees.
Jet Lag Symptoms
Jet lag causes physical and mental symptoms that tend to get worse as you cross more time zones. You'll probably have at least two of these symptoms:
- Stomach problems
- Appetite changes
- Disturbed sleep
- Trouble concentrating
- A hard time working
- Trouble falling asleep when you fly eastward
- Waking up earlier than usual when you fly westward
How long does jet lag last?
Experts say you need about one day for each time zone you cross to recover from jet lag. It may take longer if you're older, have health issues, or traveled east.
How to Avoid Jet Lag
It's almost impossible to avoid jet lag, but doing certain things before and during travel can help manage how serious it is and how long it lasts.
Here are some things you can do before you travel:
- Ensure you get enough rest before your trip.
- Several days before your trip, gradually adjust your sleeping habits to the time zone of your destination.
- Try to go to bed an hour or two earlier if you’re traveling east or later if you’re traveling west.
- Manage stress with relaxation and self-care exercises like meditation, breathing exercises, and journaling.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration makes it harder for your body to adjust to the new rhythm.
Taking these steps during travel can lower your chances of serious jet lag on arrival:
- As soon as you board your flight, reset your watch for the new time zone.
- Try to sleep according to your destination’s local time, but don't oversleep.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Don't eat heavy meals.
- Stay well-hydrated.
- Move around as much as possible.
Ways to Manage Jet Lag
Your best bet is to adapt yourself to the routine of your destination's time zone as soon as possible. Here are some ways to do that:
- If you need to nap right after you arrive, limit it to 2 hours.
- Try to keep yourself busy and engaged with other people.
- Avoid overeating.
- Drink enough water to stay hydrated, which helps you feel better during the day and sleep well at night.
- If you feel sleepy during the day, nap for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Avoid tobacco
- Don't drink too much alcohol, especially before bedtime
Daylight is one of the most effective ways to reset your internal clock. If you're shifting to an earlier time zone, it's best to expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. Get some sun in the evening if you're adjusting to a later time zone.
Sunlight combined with movement is even more powerful. Try getting some exercise outdoors, like a brisk walk.
Caffeinated beverages like tea or coffee help you feel alert and energized. But don't overdo them, as caffeine can be dehydrating. And stop drinking them after noon, since caffeine can interfere with your sleep.
Jet Lag Treatment
There's no cure for jet lag. Though it will go away on its own as your body clock syncs with the local time zone, some remedies can manage symptoms and help your body adjust.
Melatonin for jet lag
Your body naturally starts to produce melatonin after the sun sets and stops when the sun rises. This hormone signals to your body that it's time to sleep.
Some studies suggest that melatonin supplements are effective for treating circadian rhythm sleep disorders like jet lag.
If you're traveling across five or more time zones, you might start on the day you travel, during your destination’s local evening time. Then take it at bedtime for a few days after you arrive. If you’re crossing seven to eight time zones, start taking it at your destination's bedtime up to 3 days before you depart.
Melatonin supplements can interact with other medications. and we need more research into their long-term safety. So talk to your doctor before you take them.
If you travel a lot and can't spend a lot of time outside, light therapy can work like natural sunlight to help align your body clock with the destination’s time. This type of therapy uses a light box, lamp, or visor to expose you to bright artificial light for short periods.
You can buy light therapy devices without a prescription. But you should talk to your doctor about the most effective ways to use them.
Medications can help manage jet lag symptoms and improve how well you function after your flight.
- Sleeping pills, including nonbenzodiazepines (eszopiclone, zaleplon, and zolpidem) and benzodiazepines (midazolam and temazepam), can help you sleep at night.
- Stimulants such as armodafinil (Nuvigil) and modafinil (Provigil) help prevent daytime sleepiness.
- Melatonin agonists like agomelatine (Valdoxan), ramelteon (Rozerem), and tasimelteon (Hetlioz) move your body clock, which can help with adjusting to your new time.
You can get some sleeping pills over-the-counter, but you might need a prescription for other medications for managing jet lag symptoms. Talk to your doctor before taking any medications. They can advise you on which is best for you, any side effects you might have, and how to take them.
It’s best to take these medications only when other methods fail to help you manage jet lag.
Get Good Sleep on the Road
Many people have trouble sleeping in a hotel room or in a different environment than their own bed at home. To help you sleep better when you’re away from home:
- Bring your own pillow or blanket. They may help you get more comfortable.
- Pack a few personal objects from home (like photographs or a coffee mug) to ease the feeling of being in a new place.
- Check your room for anything that could keep you awake, including light shining through the drapes. Bring along a sleep mask to block out any light.
- Request a room in the quietest section of the property, and make sure it’s away from any entrance areas or elevators. Use a fan or other white noise to cut down sounds of hotel neighbors or street traffic.
- Check your room's thermostat. You may not sleep well if the room is warmer than 75 F or colder than 54 F.