Jet lag occurs when you travel across multiple time zones and have trouble adjusting to the new schedule. After traveling a long distance by air, your circadian rhythms may still be aligned with the previous time zone. Your body may expect to sleep when it is daytime in the new time zone or be awake when you are supposed to sleep.
Jet lag is a temporary condition. It may begin after you travel across at least two time zones. The severity of the jet lag depends on how many time zones you crossed and which direction you traveled. Flying east is usually more difficult of an adjustment than westward travel. It is estimated that it takes one day per time zone for your body clock to fully adjust to local time.
You may have a difficult time functioning when you are jet lagged. You may not feel awake and alert when you need to do your job, socialize or sightsee. Anyone of any age can have jet lag, although older adults are likely to have more severe jet lag, and may need a much longer time to recover. Some people are able to adjust more quickly than others to rapid shifts in time zones. Pilots, flight attendants and business travelers are most likely to have jet lag due to their lifestyle.
Jet lag can be worsened by:
- Sleep loss due to travel
- Spending a long time sitting in an uncomfortable position, such as in an airplane
- Caffeine and alcohol use
- Air pressure or poor air quality
Jet lag is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. Your circadian rhythms are your body’s internal clock that signals when you are supposed to feel sleepy or alert. Your circadian rhythms operate on a roughly 24-hour schedule. Your body uses sunlight to determine how much of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin it produces. Melatonin production is high during the evening and very low during the day. As a result, you are alert during the daytime and sleepy at night. Traveling across multiple time zones can disrupt your circadian rhythms.
Jet lag from traveling across time zones can be difficult to cope with. You may feel fatigue as you are expected to be awake and alert for your daytime activities. The symptoms are likely to be worse and longer lasting the further you have traveled, especially if you travel eastward.
Complaints related to jet lag include:
- Trouble falling asleep
- Feeling tired or disoriented
- Being unable to function normally during the daytime
- Mild sickness
- Stomach problems
- Menstrual symptoms in females
Have you traveled by air across at least two time zones?
Do you have trouble sleeping or are you very sleepy during the day?
Do you have difficulty functioning normally, a feeling of mild sickness or stomach problems within one or two days after travel?
If you answered yes to each of these questions, then you may have jet lag.
A visit to a board certified sleep medicine physician is not necessary unless you travel often and continue to struggle, or suspect you have another sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea.
You should be able to make adjustments to your sleep schedule and overcome jet lag on your own.
Jet Lag Treatment
Jet lag does not usually require treatment. There are remedies and behavioral adjustments that can help you overcome jet lag after you travel:
By slowly changing the time that you go to sleep and when you wake up in the weeks before your trip, you should have an easier time adjusting to the jet lag. When the time for the trip comes, your sleep schedule should be relatively close to that of your destination.
Sunlight is a powerful tool to reset your internal clock. After you reach your destination, make sure to open a window or go outside during the daytime to expose yourself to sunlight. This will help you adjust to the new time zone.
Bright light therapy
This involves exposure to a special artificial light at certain times to help reinforce your body clock and ease the transition to a new time zone. This is especially useful if you are frequently indoors or travel to a location without much natural sunlight. Schedule short sessions in the morning and early afternoon with the light. You can use a special light box, desk lamp, and visor or dawn simulator for light therapy.
Melatonin supplements can help your body adjust to jet lag by adjusting your circadian rhythms. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the brain’s pineal gland and considered a signal for when your body is supposed to sleep. Research suggests that a dose as low as 0.5 mg is just as effective as higher doses.
Your doctor can prescribe for you a hypnotic sleeping pill to help you get rest at the proper times when you first reach your destination or to help avoid sleep deprivation during the flight. Sleeping pills may help you sleep better as you adjust to the new time zone, but are not necessary and should be used on a short-term basis.
Minimize caffeine and alcohol consumption
Caffeine and alcohol use can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. It is recommended that you avoid these substances while you are on the airplane.
Some studies have shown that moderate exercise helps adjustment to the new time schedule. Outdoor exercise has the dual advantage of including exposure to sunlight.
By: Rhonda Emerson