What Is Jet Lag and How to Recover?

written by / April 3, 2022
What Is Jet Lag - Featured

Nowadays, people can fly to nearly every exotic corner of the Earth imaginable. But, to do so, they sometimes have to pass through several time zones. Enter jet lag.

So, what is jet lag, and how to recover from it?

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 they seriously impede a vacation or business meeting abroad.

If you want to know more, read the full scope below!

Our Circadian Rhythm Explained

Long flights across several time zones (to the east or west) lead to disturbances in our circadian rhythm — the so-called internal biological clock.

Usually, this biological clock controls our sleep and wake cycle, and various other regulatory processes like:

  • body temperature 
  • blood pressure
  • hormone secretion
  • appetite and thirst
  • blood sugar metabolism
  • sleepiness
  • mood
  • energy levels

However, even a slight disturbance of this natural rhythm produces unpleasant jet lag symptoms, such as nausea, tiredness, dizziness, and depression.

What Causes Jet Lag?

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

Light Exposure

Exposure to light has a decisive role in how our biological clock functions. It’s well-known that our body’s primary sleeping stimulus is the absence of light. 

It’s also a prerequisite for melatonin secretion, crucial for inducing sleep. This is why using melatonin for jet lag is considered one of the best forms of treatment.

Oxygen Saturation

Numerous studies prove that the state of hypoxia — low oxygen levels in our body tissues — during flight contributes to severe jet lag symptoms. The difference in cabin pressure, or gas expansion, can even lead to medical emergencies in people with chronic conditions.

How Does Jet Lag Feel?

Adapting to a new time and place may be a difficult and unpleasant process, leading to sleeping problems, daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, digestive disturbances, and more.

So, to answer your question, “can you feel sick with jet lag?” Yes, it is indeed possible to feel sick after stepping out of the plane. 

The physical complaints may vary depending on the number of time zones crossed and your own jet lag resilience. These are the most frequently encountered symptoms:

  • fatigue and drowsiness
  • irritability 
  • anxiety
  • profuse sweating
  • slight depression and mood swings
  • brain fog (confusion) or difficulty concentrating
  • headache or a sense of weight in the head
  • loss of coordination
  • sleep disorders, like insomnia, waking prematurely, or having trouble waking up
  • loss of appetite
  • gastrointestinal disturbances

Sometimes, jet lag causes nausea, constipation, and diarrhea, so much so that you could become severely dehydrated. Psychological symptoms such as depression and even memory impairment have also been recorded.

Risk Factors

Your jet lag recovery time will largely depend on a few things, such as:

  • Your age. Older individuals are more likely to experience jet lag and usually take longer to recover.
  • Frequency of flying. The more you fly, the more you experience jet lag; simple as.
  • Your flying direction. Our internal clock doesn’t like losing time, so you’re more likely to feel jet lag insomnia if you’re traveling east.
  • The number of time zones. More time zones equal a greater chance you’ll experience jet lag.
  • Consuming coffee or alcohol. Consuming either of these beverages increases your chances of dehydration and jet lag.
  • Sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep before your voyage can worsen jet lag symptoms.
  • Stress. You adapt to the new circadian rhythm much slower when you’re under a lot of stress.

How to Prevent Jet Lag

Some preventive measures can help save precious recovery time when traveling far. Here’s to name but a few:

What to Do Before Departure

1. Adjust your sleep schedule before you leave.

If you’re flying west, get to and from bed later than usual to allow your internal clock to adapt before you go. If you’re flying east, try going to bed and waking up earlier than usual so that 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 period.

2. Rest well before the trip. 

Studies show that people who slept well the night before deal with jet lag faster. Qualitative preflight sleep provides the body with more time to acclimate. If you feel sore and groggy when you wake up, use some OTC sleep aids to help improve your sleep quality before your trip.

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

This approach will give your body time to adapt. This will also allow time for jet lag treatment to start working. Overall, you’ll be a lot more presentable that way. 

4. Curb stress.

Now’s the perfect time to practice your favorite stress-reducing techniques. You can use anything from meditation and music to some quality CBD oil, whatever works best for you!

What to Do While Traveling

5. Select flights with a later arrival time.

How do you sleep with jet lag? Simple. Book your plane tickets so that you arrive at a later time. This way, it’s easier to fall asleep faster. 

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.

How to avoid jet lag the next day? Use a jet lag calculator to time things more accurately and choose the correct travel details.

6.  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.

7. Select the best seat on the plane for relaxing and sleeping.

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

If you want to reduce the uncomfortable effects of jet lag symptoms, like depression, before arriving at your final destination, sit next to a 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’re given the option, reserve a seat near the front of the plane. The vibrations during turbulence are significantly lower there, allowing you to sleep better. 

Sleeping in the plane is the best jet lag treatment since it lets you relax before reaching your destination. It’s far better than watching a movie or playing a video game.

8. Drink plenty of water frequently.

One cause of jet lag is dehydration and a subsequent loss of electrolytes. This happens since pressure is much lower than what you’d experience at sea level, which speeds up the whole process.

If you want to fight one of the most common jet lag symptoms (dizziness), we recommend you keep a bottle of water with you.

9. 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 tempting, airplane food is full of harmful carbohydrates and vegetable fats. These can complicate the body’s adaptation to new conditions — like different time zones. Hence, 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.

10. 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 can also dehydrate you, which will only aggravate your jet lag symptoms.

11. 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!

12. Prepare your baby for the new time zone.

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

What to Do Upon Arrival

13. 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 initially feel exhausted. 

Do the same with all your daily activities and meals.

14. 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. Remember that you can still feel jet-lagged after a week if you don’t do it right.

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

This breakfast combo will boost your energy levels and help you feel refreshed.

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

How to get over jet lag when you get home? Sun exposure!

Daylight is a key factor that allows us to quickly adapt to a different time zone. This will send important messages to your brain that it’s still daytime. Hence, it won’t go into sleep mode.

17. Get extra comfortable.

When it comes to jet lag symptoms, how long does it last?

The longer you stay awake, the worse it gets! Therefore, prepare your comfiest mattress topper and turn off any noise and light sources one hour before bed.

18. 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 in treating jet lag. 

Note that all synthetic medications have some adverse side effects. Hence, finding the best jet lag pills will probably take some try and error.

19. 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.

That said, studies also confirm that jet lag takes a temporary toll on our physical strength and endurance. So don’t take it to heart and give your body some time to rest.

How long does jet lag last? The longer you rest, the worst it gets! 

Even walking the airplane cabin during the flight can aid your recovery. So when you feel the effects of jet lag, go to the gym, visit the park, or follow a breathing exercise. These exercises will help you more than caffeine, energy drinks, or sleeping pills.

Why Jet Lag Is Worse When 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.

How to Avoid Jet Lag When Flying 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 adjust your body to the new daily rhythm gradually. Go to sleep two hours earlier than usual and get up early the next day. 
  • Avoid sleep medication. Using natural, tested methods for insomnia problems, such as herbal tea, exercise, or a snuggly weighted blanket, is way better (and safer).
  • 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 protein-rich foods (yellow cheese, fish, eggs, etc.) — they’ll help prevent symptoms of jet lag, especially fatigue.
  • A few days before the flight, try to adjust your body to the new daily rhythm gradually — 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?

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 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 some valuable tips:

  • Avoid heavy physical and psychological stress in the first few days after you arrive. 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.

Bottom Line

Jet lag symptoms can get ugly, potentially ruining a fun vacation or an important business trip. 

Fortunately, the effects are only temporary, and the intensity depends on how many time zones you pass and in which direction (east being the worst). Likewise, there are many ways to alleviate and prevent jet lag, from sleeping pills to a proper diet and sleep schedule.


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, you cross seven time zones when flying from Sofia, Bulgaria, to New York City. Hence, it should take around seven days to catch up with this time difference.

Can you die from jet lag?

No, you cannot die from jet lag, no matter the severity of the symptoms. Adjust your sleep schedule before leaving, and make some dietary changes to recover faster. The bacteria in your gut play a role in regulating your circadian rhythm.

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 back home.

Can jet lag last a week?

Symptoms often pass after several days without the need for medical intervention, but this also depends on the individual case. Still, there’s a real chance your jet lag lasts for a week or longer if you travel across more than seven time zones.

How long does jet lag last?

It depends on several factors, such as distance, age, and whether or not you consume coffee and alcohol. The less prepared you are, the longer it’ll last.

How do I get rid of jet lag?

When it comes to jet lag, prevention is better than cure. Even so, there are a few things you can do to lessen the symptoms, such as:

  • Eat light
  • Get some sun exposure
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid daytime naps and sleeping
  • Use natural sleep aids like melatonin or chamomile tea
  • Get prescription medication

What is jet lag than a change that occurs in your body after prolonged long-distance journeys crossing different time zones? Knowing what it is and how to deal with it is half the battle.

At medical school, it was easy to realize that sleep is crucial while studying during the many sleepless nights I spent. As a new mom, when the lack of sleep became even more evident, this was the real moment when I started appreciating the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Since sleeping is so essential to our health and immune system, I took it upon myself to educate people on different aspects of sleep by sharing the valuable information I have learned.

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