What Is Jet Lag?

More than likely if you’ve traveled a long way through multiple countries the effects of jet lag have hit you. Jet lag is that general lethargy and crankiness we feel after air travel. Jet lag is extremely common and also fairly simple to prevent if you take the right steps, including how to avoid, and how to recover from jet lag, which we will discuss.

The definition of jet lag is:

“Jet lag occurs with rapid travel across time zones, resulting in a misalignment between the timing of body’s circadian rhythms with those of the external physical environment. Technically, jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder. It is classified as a secondary circadian dysrhythmia and as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder.”

Circadian rhythm is basically your body’s internal clock using your brain to take cues from your external environment to alert your sleep-wake cycle. An example of this is your brain relying on the level of sunlight to recognize when it’s time to wake up as well as when it’s time to go to bed.

People in extreme north or south climates, as a result, have an increased risk of seasonal depression and associated sleep problems such as hypersomnia (excessive sleep) during the winter when there’s less light outside. 

It’s also why using your electronics at night can wake you up. These light cues help your brain determine when it should begin melatonin production. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for regulating your sleep and inducing it. At night, your melatonin levels rise, reaching their peak while you sleep, while they are at their lowest levels during the day.

What happens when you travel long distances is you are in a different environment with different circadian rhythm cues than what your brain is normally used to. 

What Is Social Jet Lag?

Social jet lag is different than typical jet lag, and can be experienced without traveling. Social jet lag is the disconnect between biological time and social time. It’s easily seen in night owls expected to get to the office early.

People with advanced sleep phase disorder or delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) have sleep-wake cycles that are offset – or delayed – from normal. As a result, they feel out of sorts when restricted by social convention to be alert at the “wrong” time for them and consequently have symptoms like those of jet lag. 

However, it can also present in instances of regular jet lag. A good example is going out to dinner when it’s local time at your destination, even though you’d much rather sleep on your comfortable mattress such are those we have in our best mattresses guide.

Symptoms of Jet Lag

Some people (about a third) experience minimal symptoms, while others may have more extreme effects. Common symptoms are:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • General lethargy
  • Waking early
  • Difficulties falling asleep and/or maintaining sleep (insomnia)
  • Difficulty focusing and staying alert
  • Increased irritability
  • Digestive problems and constipation

The farther you travel, the worse the symptoms, and travelling east is always worse than travelling west. Travelling east generally results in difficulty falling asleep and traveling west results in difficulty maintaining sleep.

Also, the plane itself can make jet lag symptoms worse. The air quality on planes is usually worse and the low humidity results in dehydration. You are also in cramped conditions (unless you’re flying in the first class) and forced to sit for a long time which causes your body to ache.

How Long Does Jet Lag Last?

The symptoms discussed above usually last for several days until the traveler adapts to the new time zone. A good rule of thumb is that it takes about a day per time zone to recover.

Senior citizens usually need longer to recover from jet lag. Their circadian cycles are slower to adjust to the new time zone.

Eastward travel (requiring advancing circadian rhythms and sleep-wake hours) is usually more difficult to adapt to than westward travel.

Also, your recovery time lengthen if travelling to a place with a higher altitude. It can take as long as 3 weeks for your body to fully adapt because of the lower oxygen levels at altitudes of 13,200 feet or more.

Who Is at Greater Risk?

Morning birds are affected more than night owls, and people over the age of 50, business travelers and members of the flight crews are most at risk of jet lag because they are constantly travelling to different time zones. As a result, their body has trouble settling into a steady circadian rhythm.

People with pre-existing sleep issues or stress also tend experience jet lag symptoms more intensively, as well as anyone who overindulges in caffeine or alcohol.

How to Avoid Jet Lag?

While getting rid of jet lag will take some time, there are many steps you can take to minimize its troublesome symptoms. Below we’ve listed our top tips you can use before, during, and after your flight.

Pre-Flight

  • Book a flight that suits your sleep schedule. For long trips, get a red-eye so you can sleep through the night and practically avoid any disruption to your sleep schedule. If you have trouble sleeping while you fly, book a flight that will allow you to arrive to your desired destination an hour or two before bedtime so you can fall asleep as soon as you reach your destination.
  • Choose a window seat so you can lean against the window and not be disrupted by other passengers in your row. Book a seat with more legroom or even a first-class seat if you have the money so you can sleep without any problem.
  • If you have a very important trip, personal or business related, book a flight that will take you to your destination at least a day or two earlier and give you enough time to fully adapt and recover from jet lag.
  • Gradually adjust your schedule before your trip. In the days leading up to your flight, adjust your bed and meal times by 1 hour each night depending on the number of time zones you’ll be traveling. Schedule earlier for eastward travel and later for westward travel.

Day of Flight

  • Dress comfortably for the flight, and bring soft slippers with you so you can take off your shoes. Also bring blindfolds, neck rests, or earplugs – anything to help you sleep.
  • Try not to stress about anything. Pack the night before your trip if possible. Make sure your travel documents (passport, visa) are neatly packed. 
  • Go to bed a little earlier the night before to make sure you’re well rested. Try not to fly tired, sick or hungover.
  • Be sure to eat. Reduce or avoid caffeine and alcohol intake as these substances can mess with your sleep and energy levels, making dehydration even worse. Drink lots of water instead! (at least 8 ounces for every hour you’re flying).
  • Download soothing music, guided meditation, or white noise apps to calm your mind and help you sleep if that’s the goal.

On Plane

  • Avoid sleeping for longer than a 30-minute power nap, unless on a red-eye. If you sleep longer, you could enter deep sleep and have even more problems with your sleep cycle.
  • If you do decide to sleep, recline your seat or use the tray table as a pillow. Also, keep your seatbelt buckled and visible to flight attendants so they don’t disturb you during your flight.
  • During your flight and/or layovers at the airport, periodically walk the aisles, and do some stretching exercises in your seat to avoid blood clots that can appear from sitting too long.
  • Take the opportunity to deplane during layovers. If there’s an opportunity to get a shower, then by all means do so. It’ll be good to stretch your legs before another grueling flight, and a shower will make you feel even better.
  • Be sure to change the local time on your phone, computer, and watch.

After Flying

  • Melatonin can be an effective supplement to help you fall asleep. It’s been shown to be helpful in relieving jet lag. Take melatonin about 30 minutes before you want to go to bed. There’s no need to overdo it with melatonin. Studies have shown that a 0.5 mg dose is just as effective as higher ones for treating jet lag.
  • Adhere to the new sleep and social schedule of your destination. Eat when others eat, and sleep when others sleep. Go to sleep if you arrive at night, and try to stay awake if you arrive during the day. If you really have to sleep, sleep for only two hours to get rid of the worst fatigue. After waking up, take an hour’s walk in the sun to help your body get used to the change.
  • There are some sleep medications that can help you sleep, but remember they can make your jet lag worse so use them with precaution.
  • Get some Vitamin D. Sunlight can help your body clock adapt to the new conditions. Spend time outside in the morning if you travel east, or in the afternoon if you travel west. While you are outside do some exercises as this can help as well. Draw your curtains and make it as dark as possible when it’s time for bed.
  • In extreme cases like traveling 8 time zones or more, you are at risk of completely inverting your schedule. Time your light exposure accordingly, so your body does not confuse dawn for dusk, or vice versa. If you traveled west, avoid sunlight in the early evening. If you traveled east, wear sunglasses and avoid sunlight in the morning. In the late afternoon, take off the sunglasses and go outside or otherwise expose yourself to bright light.

Recovery from Jet Lag

If you’re feeling the effects of jet lag, please realize it will be a temporary annoyance, and will eventually go away on its own.

The best way to get rid of jet lag is gradually over a few days. The number of days should equal the number of time zones crossed. In other words, you’ll need to adjust your body clock by one hour every day.

Besides adjusting your sleep schedule, there is much you can do to speed up the process and ensure more restful sleep at your destination.

  • Exposure to daylight at your new location can help reset your circadian clock, and it is a good idea to take a walk right after you wake up.
  • Adhere to the social schedule at your destination. Engaging in what everyone else is doing will help you get in alignment with your current time zone after trans-meridian travel.
  • Upon arriving, it’s normal to feel energized about the trip, stressed from travelling, or anxious about your meeting agenda. This can lead to insomnia on the first night, exacerbated by jet lag. To fall asleep faster, practice good sleep hygiene, be careful about your caffeine and alcohol intake, and avoid long naps.
  • If you have a huge presentation or are meeting the parents, it’s also normal to experience nerves no matter how prepared you are. Practice deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation to calm your mind.
  • An unfamiliar environment can make sleep hard to come by, so make your hotel room as comfortable as possible. Bring your own sheets, a pillow, or even a stuffed animal from home. Bring diffusers that you use at home so you can make it smell the same. The eye masks or ear plugs that proved so helpful on the plane will also help you block out noise from the hallway or air conditioner. Ask for extra towels to block out sound or light from the hallway, or ask to be moved to a room further away from the elevator. Adjust the thermostat to a cool mid-60 degrees Fahrenheit.