What Is Jet Lag - Featured

What Is Jet Lag and How to Recover

by Dr. Lina Velikova, MD

What is jet lag? Nowadays, people can fly to nearly every exotic country imaginable. But to do this, they sometimes have to pass through several time zones. As a result, travelers often must deal with the time difference and accompanying fatigue, possibly even jet lag. Jet lag refers to the unpleasant symptoms and discomfort you experience when your body hasn’t acclimated to a new time zone. The symptoms can be so severe that jet lag can seriously impede a vacation or business meeting abroad.

Jet Lag: Its Meaning in a Nutshell

Long trips through several time zones (to the east or west) lead to disturbances in the circadian rhythm, or so-called internal biological clock. Normally, this biological clock controls our sleep and wake cycles, body temperature, and hormone secretion, as well as the need for sleep or food. It even influences our mood. The disruption, in turn, produces the unpleasant sensations we associate with jet lag, like nausea, tiredness, dizziness, and even depression.

When we leave the plane, we’re exposed to daylight (or its absence) in a time zone that’s different from the one we left only a few hours ago. As a result, our internal clock gets confused while trying to catch up. 

Exposure to light has a decisive role in how our biological clock functions. It’s well-known that the primary stimulus helping the body sleep is the absence of light. It’s also a prerequisite for the secretion of melatonin, which plays a crucial role in inducing sleep. This is the underlying reason we should consider using melatonin for jet lag treatment.

Recent research has shown the impact that a rapid change in time zones has on the microbes residing in our intestines. In an experiment, it was demonstrated that mice that received microorganisms from students who suffered from jet lag became obese and even developed diabetes. It’s worth emphasizing that the scientists used bacteria from samples taken before and after the flight.

The Most Common Jet Lag Symptoms

Nearly everyone has experienced a change in time zone. As we’ve discussed, this phenomenon, in some cases, proves to be a severe challenge to the body’s internal biological clock. The adaptation to a new time and place may be a difficult and unpleasant process, leading to sleeping problems, as well as daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, digestive disturbances, and more.

Can you feel sick with jet lag? The physical complaints may vary depending on the number of time zones that have been crossed and the physical and psychological state of the person. The following include the more typical symptoms:

  • Fatigue and drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Slight depression, confusion, or difficulty concentrating
  • Pain or a sense of weight in the head
  • Loss of coordination
  • Sleep disorders, like insomnia, waking too early, or having trouble waking up
  • Loss of appetite
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances, like constipation or diarrhea

In some cases, jet lag’s effects can be severe, including dehydration, severe depression, and even memory impairment. Some of the later effects and complications related to this condition are obesity.

How to Avoid Jet Lag

There are some measures you can take to avoid jet lag:

Before Departure

What Is Jet Lag - How To Avoid It

1. Adjust your sleep schedule before you leave.

If you’re flying west, start going to bed and getting up later than usual, so your internal clock will have the opportunity to start adapting before you go. If you’re flying east, try going to bed and waking up earlier than usual, so you can get used to the new time zone faster. This way, you’ll adjust your biological clock more smoothly, thereby shortening your jet lag recovery time.

2. Rest well before the trip.

Studies show that people who slept well the night before traveling to a different time zone deal with jet lag faster. Qualitative preflight sleep provides the body with more time to acclimate.

3. Schedule your arrival a few days before any expected engagements or business meetings.

This approach will give your body time to adapt, and you can present yourself in a better state of mind.

While Traveling

4. Select flights with a later arrival time.

How do you sleep with jet lag? Book your plane tickets so that you arrive at a later time. This way it’s easier to fall asleep faster, and you can relax better after your trip. If you don’t sleep during the flight, the combination of fatigue and daytime activities in the new time zone will help you fall asleep on time the following evening. You should be able to wake up in the morning at the local time and enjoy the day in your new location.

You can also use a jet lag calculator to time things more accurately and choose the right travel details.

5.  Divide your journey into stages.

Jet lag will be much more tolerable if you can relax at an intermediate destination before continuing your journey. If you go with this option, spend one day between your flights at a place where you can stop and adapt more slowly.

6. Select the best seat on the plane.

What Is Jet Lag - Window Seat

The question of whether seats near the window are better than those near the isle is still relevant here. In terms of jet lag, there’s a sure winner.

If you want to reduce the effects of the more severe jet lag symptoms, like depression, before arriving at your final destination, select a place next to the window. This approach gives you more support for your pillow when you sleep on the plane. Plus, you won’t have to wake up when someone in your row chooses to walk around the cabin.

If you have the option, reserve a seat near the front of the plane. The vibrations during turbulence are significantly lower there, which will allow you to sleep better. Sleeping is the best jet lag treatment since it lets you relax before reaching your destination. It’s a better idea than watching a movie or playing a video game.

7. Drink plenty of water frequently.

One cause of jet lag is dehydration and a subsequent loss of electrolytes. This type of dehydration can begin on the airplane because the pressure is much lower than what you’d experience at sea level, which speeds up the processes leading to dehydration. If you want to fight one of the most common jet lag symptoms (dizziness), we recommend you keep a bottle of water with you.

8. Limit your food intake on the plane.

To minimize the adverse effects of jet lag, spare your body by limiting how much food you eat during the flight. While it’s tempting, airplane food is full of harmful carbohydrates and vegetable fats. All of these can complicate the body’s adaptation to new conditions—like different time zones.

Specifically, if your flight arrives during the day, these foods can cause a sense of fatigue. Therefore, if you’re wondering how to get over jet lag, trust the chronobiologists who say to avoid fatty foods. Instead, choose protein-rich lunches that will help you keep your energy up throughout the day.

9. Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine before, during, and after the journey.

Drinking coffee or alcohol before or during the flight isn’t recommended. This habit may further upset your sleep pattern or cause you to wake up early in the morning. It also can dehydrate you, which will only aggravate your jet lag symptoms. These observations also apply to taking most sleeping pills.

10. Change your watch.

Before taking off, set your watch to the time at your destination. This will help you through the process of adapting to the new time zone when you arrive.

But don’t do this several hours before your departure. Although it can help you adapt even earlier, there’s the risk of missing your flight if you don’t remember you changed your watch!

11. Are you traveling with a baby?

Baby jet lag symptoms are no delusion. If you’re traveling with a baby, one week before the flight, start changing the bedtime routine. It’s a good idea to slowly move the baby’s sleep habits to the time zone you’re traveling to.

After Arrival

What Is Jet Lag - Time Zones

12. Once you’ve arrived, set your schedule and routine according to the new time.

Set your clock carefully before your trip. When you have jet lag and can’t sleep at night, try to go to bed and get up at the time that’s best for the new location, even if you feel exhausted at first. The same applies to when you eat. And remember that light is the main factor for faster adaptation.

13. Avoid sleeping during the day.

When you reach your destination and start experiencing symptoms of jet lag, try to avoid retiring too early. Even a short afternoon nap at the hotel can prevent you from getting used to the new time zone. Keep in mind, it’s possible to still feel jet lagged after a week.

14. Jet lag experts recommend having a strong coffee and breakfast with fruit the morning after your flight. 

15. Once you’ve arrived, go out during the day if you can. 

Sunlight is one of the factors that allows us to adapt quickly to a different time zone. Its stimulation reminds the body that it’s still daytime and not time to sleep.

16. Contact your doctor if you want to avoid or mitigate any sleep problems.

Drugs from the group of benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepines, and melatonin-containing supplements are the best jet lag pills for this purpose.

17. Be sure to exercise.

The positives of physical activity and exercise are greater than we realize. Certain exercises help people cope with the effects of jet lag, especially at the onset of severe fatigue, drowsiness, and depression.

Even walking the airplane cabin during the flight can help your recovery. So when you feel the effects of jet lag, go to the gym, go to the park, or follow a breathing exercise—you could even do a few repetitive lifts with your suitcase. These exercises will help you more than caffeine, energy drinks, or sleeping pills. 

Why Jet Lag Is Worse Going from West to East

Jet lag is easier to bear when traveling west because we’re adding hours to our day, and the body has time to adapt to the time zone shift. Traveling east “takes away” hours, giving the body less time to adjust. Also, your body may instinctively try to wake up at night, thinking it’s already morning.

Interestingly, traveling from the North to the South Pole doesn’t seriously deteriorate the circadian rhythm. However, any physical discomfort can still be associated with seasonal changes and severe temperature differences, which may also hurt the body.

Tips for Travelers Going East

  • Try to fall asleep while traveling or use a jet lag recovery calculator to choose the right time to travel.
  • Eat products rich in carbohydrates (fruits, potatoes, pasta, rice, yogurt).
  • A few days before take-off, start trying to gradually adjust your body to the new daily rhythm. Go to sleep two hours earlier than usual and get up early the next day. 
  • Avoid sleep remedies. It’s better to use natural, tested methods for insomnia problems such as herbal tea.
  • Plan any crucial appointments in the place you’re traveling to in the evenings.

Tips for Travelers Going West 

  • Make sure you don’t fall asleep during the flight.
  • If possible, move around and drink plenty of water to overcome any overwhelming drowsiness.
  • Consume foods rich in protein (yellow cheese, fish, eggs, etc.)—they’ll help you prevent jet lag insomnia.
  • A few days before the flight, try to gradually adjust your body to the new daily rhythm—for example, go to bed two hours later than usual.
  • If possible, choose flights around noon.
  • Plan any critical meetings at the place you’re traveling to in the early hours.
  • After landing, don’t succumb to your fatigue. Wait until the evening before going to sleep. 

How Do You Treat Jet Lag Symptoms?

What Is Jet Lag - Melatonin

First off, don’t forget melatonin’s benefits. This hormone is produced by the pineal gland and prepares the body for sleep. In the UK and Europe, it’s only available by prescription, but in the US you can buy it as a supplement from any pharmacy.

A study by Cochrane stated that melatonin is remarkably effective in preventing the shock from changing time zones, and its use over a short period of time seems safe. Pills containing melatonin are recommended for older adults traveling through four or five time zones, especially in the east, if they’ve suffered from fatigue due to the time difference on previous trips.

How do you get rid of jet lag fast? Here are more valuable tips:

  • In the first few days after you arrive, avoid heavy physical and psychological stress. This makes it easier to adapt to a new daily and nightly rhythm. 
  • Spend as much time as possible outside in the fresh air to gather your energy. 
  • If you’re taking certain medications at specific times, you should contact your doctor before you travel about any adjustments you might need to make.

FAQ

How long does it take to recover from jet lag?

In most cases, it takes a full day to catch up with a new time zone. For every additional hour, you add or remove from your previous schedule, you will need another day to acclimate. For example, if you fly from Sofia, Bulgaria, to New York City, you would cross seven time zones. To catch up with this time difference, it should take around seven days.

Can you die from jet lag?

No, you cannot die from jet lag. The lesson is to try to avoid flights through multiple time zones. But what if there’s no other way? Along with adjusting your sleep schedule before leaving, you can also make some dietary changes. The bacteria in your gut plays a role in regulating your circadian rhythm. With this in mind, before the flight you could try to change your meal times to match the hours of the place you’re going.

Can you get jet lag from a 3-hour flight?

We recommend that you avoid making any significant changes to your daily schedule if you don’t have to go through more than three time zones—especially if your stay at the final destination is going to be short. There is a danger that you will adjust to your destination’s time zone and then experience jet lag when you get home.

Can jet lag last a week?

Complaints often pass after several days without the need for medical intervention, but this also depends on the individual case. There is a risk that jet lag will last for a week or longer if you travel across more than seven time zones.

Conclusion

Jet lag’s symptoms can be highly unpleasant, potentially ruining a fun vacation or important business trip. So exactly what is jet lag? It refers to the changes that occur in your body after prolonged long-distance journeys crossing different time zones. Fortunately, the effect is temporary, and its intensity depends on how many time zones are passed on the journey and in which direction you’re traveling. However, from adjusting your sleep and diet schedule to taking the right sleeping pills, there are many ways jet lag can be alleviated—even prevented.

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