Jet lag is a temporary sleep disruption from traveling across multiple time zones. Jet lag interrupts your body’s “internal clock,” which tells you when you should be asleep or awake. Your body’s clock is used to your regular time zone and gets thrown off when you travel into a different time zone. The more time zones you cross, the worse this can be.
Jet lag is a common sleep problem, especially for those who travel over more than two time zones quickly.
Jet lag interrupts your body’s “internal clock” that tells you when you should be asleep or awake.
Symptoms can vary for each person.
This is usually brief and goes away in a day or two. For some people, symptoms can last up to a week, though this is less common.
Jet lag symptoms usually improve without the need for treatment.
If you experience any other symptoms of illness, contact a healthcare provider.
What causes jet lag?
Jet lag is a common sleep problem. It happens to people who travel to different time zones, especially those who travel more than two time zones quickly.
Going against your clock
Crossing time zones can disrupt sleep because your body runs on specific times. Your body has its own internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm controls your sleep-wake cycles, telling your body when to be awake or asleep.
Your internal clock is based on the sun. Simply put, sunlight tells your brain when it's time to wake up and go to sleep. Your brain receives input from your eyes about when it's light or dark.
The brain uses a hormone called melatonin when falling asleep at night. When the sun suddenly rises and sets differently in the place you’ve traveled to, it alters how the brain releases melatonin.
Flying may cause jet lag because of the cabin pressure changes and altitude changes. Airplanes have lower air pressure than your body is used to while on the ground. There is also less humidity in the air. These factors together can increase the likelihood of jet lag, even on short flights. Long flights with long periods of sitting can also be a factor.
Who suffers from jet lag?
While some people may not struggle with jet lag, this common problem affects many others. It can be an issue for anyone who changes time zones and can vary from person to person.
Reports show that jet lag symptoms are generally worse for those who fly from west to east. Those who fly east to west may have fewer symptoms. This is likely because it is easier for the body to stay up late than to go to bed early.
The risk of jet lag is also increased for those who fly frequently. This can include pilots, flight attendants, and business people who travel often. Older adults may experience more symptoms as well.
What are jet lag symptoms?
Jet lag symptoms can vary for each person. Symptoms may also vary for each person on each trip. There may be one symptom or many. Symptoms include:
- Difficulty sleeping - insomnia, early waking, or excessive sleepiness.
- Daytime tiredness.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Mood shifts.
- Stomach problems like cramps, diarrhea, or constipation.
- Not “feeling well” or “not like yourself”.
These symptoms can be worse the longer or further you fly. The more time zones you cross, the bigger adjustment your body has to make or the more of a shock there is to your system. It can take time for your body to become accustomed to the difference in time.
How to ease jet lag
Jet lag symptoms usually improve without the need for treatment. You can try these simple solutions to try and reduce jet lag:
Stay hydrated during your flight. Avoid coffee and alcohol, which can cause dehydration and interrupt your sleep.
Adjust your sleep time gradually before you leave for your trip. In the days leading up to your flight, start to adjust your bedtime closer to the time it will be at your destination.
Stick to bedtime in the new location. Don’t go to bed earlier or later. Go to bed on time even if it seems unusual.
Should you see a doctor?
Jet lag is usually brief and goes away in a day or two. This may vary depending on how far you traveled. If symptoms last longer than a week or get worse, contact a healthcare professional. In this case, jet lag may not be the cause.
If you are a frequent traveler, this can be more common. Frequent travel that interrupts your sleep patterns may not give your circadian rhythms time to reset. If you struggle with overcoming jet lag or are concerned your symptoms are lasting too long, you may need to talk with a healthcare provider.
Sleep specialists are available to help. Sleep studies can help determine the cause of your sleep disruptions. Treatments and medications are available if needed. Light therapy can be used to re-establish your sleep-wake times.
Avoiding jet lag
You may be able to prevent jet lag or at least decrease the symptoms. It may depend on how far you travel and how you take care of yourself. Try these tips to prevent or minimize jet lag:
- Drink plenty of fluids, avoiding caffeine and alcohol.
- Fly to your destination early in the morning and go to bed early in the evening.
- Sleep during your flight as much as you can.
- Eat small, high-protein meals before, during, or after your flight.
- Go to bed earlier or stay up later in the days before your flight to prepare for the new time zone.
- Melatonin may also be helpful. It is available over the counter in different dose amounts, and should be taken 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Exercise can regulate the symptoms as well as the circadian rhythm.
Jet lag does not cause symptoms other than those listed above. Symptoms can include tiredness, headache, or potential upset stomach. If you experience any other symptoms of illness, contact a healthcare provider. Symptoms do not include:
- Sore throat.
- Nausea or vomiting.
Jet lag occurs after crossing two or more time zones. Symptoms can be worse when multiple time zones are crossed. Traveling west to east increases the chances of having symptoms. Jet lag usually resolves in a few days but for some people can last a week. If symptoms last longer than a week, there may be an underlying problem.
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