Jet Lag: Causes, Symptoms, Remedies and Prevention
Reviewed by Sandra Sosa, MD
If you travel across time zones for work or pleasure, there's a good chance you've experienced the effects of jet lag. You know, the overwhelming physical fatigue and mental sluggishness that makes it almost impossible to focus on work-related tasks or enjoy a long-anticipated vacation. No doubt, the feeling is awful but there are a series of steps you can take before and after you arrive at your destination to minimize the symptoms. The following is our ultimate guide on how to beat it quickly and effectively. So, let's get going!
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Our Internal Body Clock and How It Works
Before we dive into specific tips on how to overcome jet lag, let's first get a better understanding of our sleep/wake cycle and why we experience it in the first place...
As a diurnal creature, we're naturally made to be active during daylight hours and sleep at night. For most people, this natural circadian period ranges anywhere from 23.5 to 24.5 hours, which corresponds very closely to the earth's rotation around the sun.
The specific region of the brain responsible for our sleep/wake cycle — the suprachiasmatic nucleus or nuclei — is located in the hypothalamus. Like a finely tuned Swiss watch, the individual cells that make up this circadian clock part of our brain works in perfect synchrony.
To remain accurate, our brain uses external cues to reset itself on a daily basis, primarily through the natural transitions from daylight to dark. Without these cues, small inaccuracies in the timing of our biological rhythms can accumulate, which can lead to disrupted and unnatural sleep patterns.
Our heart, liver, pancreas, and other organs also have natural daily oscillations that serve as a backup or secondary biological clocks. There's also genetics, which plays an important role in determining our sleep architecture. For example, our genetic makeup may adjust our circadian rhythm by as much as a couple of hours so that we become either a morning person or night owl.
Now, our body is able to adapt to small shifts in our internal clock, such as the time changes that occur every spring and fall, but it has limits. That's why it can take several days for our body to catch up when flying from New York to London, which is the common experience known as jet lag or jet syndrome...
What Causes Jet Lag?
Daily, millions of travelers have to deal with one of the most widespread, albeit transitory, sleeping disorders. Desynchronosis, the medical term for jet lag, is a temporary sleep disorder that affects individuals traveling across multiple time zones. Because these time changes are so abrupt, our brain is unable to adjust our circadian rhythm fast enough to take into account the several time zones crossed, such as flying from Los Angeles to Miami.
In essence, our body may be in Miami, but our brain is still on California time. And when our normal 10pm bedtime rolls around, our brain is still on 7pm time and thus rip-roaring to go for several more hours.
The disconnect between our body clock and the actual time typically becomes noticeable when we cross two or more time zones.
Now, since our body has a slightly easier time adjusting to a longer day than a shorter one, traveling west tends to be easier than traveling east. But if we cross a large number of time zones, we'll likely experience it regardless of the direction of travel.
As a general rule, you need one day for every time zone crossed for your body to reset to the new time zone.
Who Experiences Jet Lag?
While approximately 93 to 94 percent of long-haul travelers experience jet syndrome, not everyone endures it to the same degree. For example, for unknown reasons, young children tend to experience it to a much lesser extent than adults.
Those who tend to suffer the most include:
- Older adults
- Individuals who follow rigid daily routines
- Individuals who are normally bothered by changes to their routine
- Individuals who are already ill
On the flipside, those accustomed to frequent changes to their sleeping and eating patterns and who tend to naturally fall asleep easily usually cope with time zone changes relatively well.
What are the Symptoms of Jet Lag?
Symptoms can vary from person to person and vary widely in severity depending on how many time zones are crossed and how rested and healthy you are before traveling. That said, some typical symptoms include:
- Difficulty getting to sleep or waking up too early
- Excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating and mental fogginess
- Mood changes
- Diarrhea or constipation
- A general feeling of unwellness
Over time, frequent disruptions of the biological clock, something which shift workers and frequent travelers commonly experience, can damage the genes responsible for protecting and repairing the body. This may eventually contribute to more serious health problems, including diabetes, obesity, and even cancer. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize the detrimental effects of jet lag even when traveling halfway across the globe...
Remedies and Prevention
The following techniques are borrowed from seasoned travelers to ensure you feel at your best when arriving at your destination:
Step 1: Be Well Rested Before You Leave
Make sleep a top priority in the days leading up to your trip, which means getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Most likely this will take some advanced planning and organization on your part:
Step 2: Start Adjusting Your Body Before Your Trip
If you're traveling for more than a couple of days across several time zones, start acclimating your body ahead of time:
Even though children tend to have an easier time adapting to time zone changes than adults, it's a good idea to gradually adjust their nap, meal, and bedtimes before a long trip as well.
The Benefits of Light Therapy
Since light plays a major role in regulating your circadian rhythm, try also exposing yourself to natural or artificial light according to the daylight hours of your destination. For example, going for a workout at a brightly lit gym will help signal your brain to stay awake at a certain time.
Some studies show that the bright flashes of light used are even more effective than continuous light. Oftentimes, flashing light therapy can even be used while sleeping without waking you up! What's more, there are several light therapy boxes available for frequent travelers small enough to pack in your checked baggage.
Now, to be effective, this type of therapy must be administered at the correct time to advance or delay the sleep/wake cycle as desired. For an easy way to determine when to seek light and when to avoid it to minimize symptoms, try using this convenient online light therapy optimizer.
Step 3: Fly Smart
Being well rested and acclimating yourself to your new time zone ahead of time are only the first couple of steps to minimizing jet lag. Your actions during the trip itself also play a significant role in how you'll feel when arriving at your destination...
Schedule Your Flight Strategically
If possible, consider scheduling your flight a day or two ahead of when you actually need to arrive to allow yourself a little time to rest and adjust to your surroundings. Now, if you're traveling for business, it may take a little work on your part to convince your employer to fly earlier but your boss may warm up to the idea if you offer to work remotely for several hours on each of those days.
Veteran travelers also suggest timing your flight to arrive at your destination in the late afternoon or early evening. This allows you to go to bed within a few hours at the local bedtime so you can get a full night's sleep and hit the ground running in the morning.
Don't Wait Until You Land to Get on Local Time
Adjust your watch and phone to the time of your destination as soon as you take off. This will prepare you mentally for your new time zone and make it easier to eat and sleep on the appropriate schedule.
Sleep According to the Time at Your Destination
Only sleep or nap when it's an appropriate time at your destination. Now, obviously, this can be a tall order when you see nothing but darkness outside your plane window while your watch tells you it should be daylight or vice versa. When possible, use the cabin light and adjust the window shade to help signal the brain when to sleep and when to stay awake.
You can also use familiar daily routines to help your body and brain remain on schedule. For example, if you always start your day at home by drinking coffee and checking email, do the same thing on the plane when your watch says it's morning at your new time zone (note: in all other instances, coffee should be avoided). Likewise, if you read a few pages of a novel before bed, do the same thing on the plane shortly before it's time to sleep.
Pick the Right Seat
Sleeping on a plane is always somewhat of a challenge, but there are steps you can take to make it easier and it starts with choosing the right seat. First and business classes offer the most legroom and comfort but if your budget doesn't allow for this, try to choose a seat in premium economy or an exit row to get more legroom.
You may also want to consider a window instead of an aisle seat. This will allow you to prop up a pillow and you won't have to constantly deal with having to get up to allow your seatmate to go to the restroom. It's also a good idea to avoid the rear of the plane, areas near the galley, and restrooms since they tend to be bumpy and noisy.
To help you find a seat to suit your preference for various airplane models, be sure to visit SeatGuru.com.
Aside from choosing the right seat, try to create a comfortable space for yourself to make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep during your flight:
Minimize Your Screen Time
Smartphones, tablets, and even in-seat video screens all emit blue light which mimics natural daylight and potentially delays the onset of sleep. Thus, approximately one hour before you want to fall asleep, prepare your brain for rest by putting away your digital devices.
But if you have to use them, wear special glasses specifically designed to block the blue light from electronics. You can also simply down the f.lux app, which will automatically adjust the type of light emitted from your phone or tablet based on the time of day.
Stay Away from Caffeine and Alcohol
Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake before and during your flight as they can both interfere with your circadian rhythm by making you feel artificially awake or fatigued.
Relying on excessive amounts of caffeine to remain alert can leave you feeling jittery and cause headaches, stomach upset, and even heart palpitations. Moreover, the caffeine in coffee, sodas, and chocolates also stays in your system for several hours, which may prevent you from falling asleep at the appropriate time.
And while alcohol may help you feel sleepy very quickly, the resulting sleep is usually restless and characterized by frequent awakenings, which can worsen the problem.
Remember to Hydrate
The pressurized air in airplane cabins saps water from your body rather quickly, leading to dehydration. Apart from thirst, dry mouth and skin, dehydration can cause fatigue, headaches, difficulty sleeping, and even confusion.
Thus, consider purchasing a couple bottles of water once you get through security so you can take frequent drinks during the flight, and set reminders on your phone or watch to encourage you to drink often.
But while staying hydrated can make it easier to fall asleep, be sure not to drink so much that you spend the entire time running to the restroom!
Skip the Airline Meals and Fast Instead
Besides light, the brain's body clock also responds to when we eat, which is supposedly a holdover from the days when our prehistoric ancestors had to stay awake when hungry to forage for the food they needed to survive.
According to experts, we can temporarily suspend this secondary "food clock" to prevent it from interfering with our sleep cycle by fasting. In fact, studies have shown that individuals who follow a fasting-eating-fasting protocol before and during their trip were 7.5 times less likely to experience jet lag when they reached their destination and 16.2 times less likely to experience symptoms when they returned home!
This fasting technique before and during a flight has become so popular that the military, elite athletes, and even former President Ronald Reagan have used it to avoid jet lag.
With that said, here's how to fast correctly:
Under normal circumstances, most of us go anywhere from 12 to 16 hours between dinner and breakfast, so this technique shouldn't be too difficult for most people.
Flying also tends to slow down the natural digestive process. So if you continue to eat a lot of food during your flight, your body will have to work that much harder once you land to process everything. This can leave you feeling groggy and can cause stomach upset and bowel irregularities.
Consider Over-the-Counter and Prescription Sleep Aids
Although not for everyone, over-the-counter and prescription medications and supplements may help ease the transition between time zones. Regardless of the sleep aid, you want to make sure you can devote at least 7 to 8 hours to sleep to ensure you don't wake up with a "hangover" on top of your jet syndrome.
Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the body to regulate sleep, is among the most common over-the-counter sleep supplements, which may help you sleep better and reduce jet lag symptoms. Another good option is Magnesium, which you might find more effective.
Either way, it's important to consult your doctor before taking any sleep supplement to ensure they're appropriate for you and that they won't interact with any medication you might be on.
Prescription Sleep Aids
Short-term use of a prescription sleep aid may also be a possibility. If you're flying west to east, short-acting sleep aids like Ambien or Sonata typically work better but if you're flying east to west, long-acting medications like Ambien CR or Lunesta are the ones to go with.
But keep in mind, prescription sleep medications aren't for everyone and may cause dependency if used improperly, so be sure to discuss this issue with your physician.
Also, don't try the medication for the first time on the plane as you might have an unexpected reaction. Instead, try it in the safe environment of your home in the days leading up to your trip. Lastly, never mix sleep medications with alcohol!
Get Up and Move
While it may not prevent jet lag per se, it's important to get up and move during long flights when you're not sleeping. Moving promotes blood and oxygen circulation throughout the body, which can help you think more clearly and prevent your feet from swelling. An occasional walk down the aisle will also help keep your muscles and joints from becoming stiff.
Step 4: Adapt to the Local Time When You Arrive
Even with your best efforts, you're still going to feel somewhat mentally and physically fatigued when arriving at your destination. Thus, it's best to avoid scheduling the highlight of your vacation or that important sales meeting on the day you arrive to give yourself at least 24 hours to adjust.
If you arrive during the day, make sure to keep yourself occupied so you can stay awake until at least early evening:
Take a cold shower – Avoid the temptation to nap once you reach your hotel. Instead, take a cold shower to make you feel more awake and rejuvenated.
Soak up some sun – The quickest and most natural way to suppress melatonin production in the body is by taking in some sun. But keep in mind, you want to time your light exposure strategically depending on the direction you're traveling.
For example, if you're flying overnight six time zones to the east, it's best to expose yourself to several hours of sunlight starting around 10 or 11am at your destination. You can then move the time up one or two hours each day until you feel acclimated to your new time zone.
When traveling west, it's best to expose yourself to light in the evening to help stay awake until an appropriate bedtime at the place of your destination.
Explore the neighborhood – The fresh air, sites, sounds, and people will help stimulate and energize you when you're out on a stroll.
Avoid eating heavy food – Depending on the time of your arrival, either continue your fast until breakfast in your new time zone or eat a light meal or snack at an appropriate mealtime. Avoid a heavy meal, which will only make you feel more sluggish.
Try relaxation techniques – If you start to get your second wind about the time you should be going to bed, you can use various relaxation techniques to help your mind and body unwind. For example, take advantage of the hotel gym for a little light exercise or practice yoga or meditation in your room.
Use familiar items from home – For some people, trying to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings can be difficult enough without having to contend with jet lag. To help ease the transition, consider bringing along a couple of familiar items like a pillowcase or pajamas to provide you with the feel and scent of home.
Keep the room cool, dark, and quiet – Turn the thermostat down in your room to 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit to help lower your core body temperature and induce sleepiness. Additionally, wear a sleep mask and earplugs to help block out unwanted light and noise.
Don't sleep in – Avoid the temptation to sleep late the morning after your arrival to avoid prolonging your jet lag. Instead, get up at your normal time, eat breakfast, and make sure to keep going until a reasonable bedtime.
If you have certain routines you follow every day at home like an early morning workout, try to maintain them on your trip as they provide additional cues that help your body identify the appropriate time.
Key Action Steps
Resources & Further Reading
- AirHelp.com: How to Beat Jet Lag with These Simple Hacks
- BetterSleepBetterLife.com: Relaxation Techniques
- BestHealthMag.ca: 15 Easy Things You Can Do to Beat Jet Lag
- BusinessInsider.com: A Scientist Reveals the Secrets to Beating Jet Lag
- ConsumerReports.org: How to Beat Jet Lag: What Can Make it Hit Hardest, and Steps for Fending it Off
- Forbes.com: Beating Jet Lag: 8 Ways You're Doing it Wrong and How to Do it Right
- Frommers.com: How to Beat Jet Lag: Top Tips from Experts
- GoNandO.com: Sleep and Hydration
- Goop.com: Can I Beat Jet Lag with Good Planning?
- GQ.com: How to Beat Jet Lag, Once and for All
- Harpers.org: The Empty Stomach: Fasting to Beat Jet Lag
- Health.com: 6 Tips for Beating Jet Lag
- HowSleepWorks.com: Circadian Rhythms: How Sleep Works
- HuffingtonPost.com: How to Fight Jet Lag
- LifeHacker.com: The Truth About Jet Lag and How to Overcome It
- LonelyPlanet.com: Beat Jet Lag: Top Tips for Travellers
- MayoClinic.org: Jet Lag Disorder: Symptoms
- MedicalDaily.com: Jet Lag and Night Shifts Damage Gene Rhythm: How 'Biological Clock' Disruption Increases Risk of Cancer, Diabetes
- MedicalDaily.com: Jet Lag Cure: Flashing 'Light Therapy' Changes Circadian Rhythm and Helps You Get a Good Night's Sleep
- NIGMS.NIH.gov: Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheet
- NoJetlag.com: Who Gets Jet Lag?
- NPR.org: Move Around on Long Flights to Prevent Blood Clots
- NYTimes.com: The Claim: Cold Temperatures Improve Sleep
- NYTimes.com: Why Jet Lag Can Feel Worse When You Travel from West to East
- PediatricsNow.com: Jet Lag in Children
- ReadersDigest.com: This Is Why You Should Never, Ever Eat Food on Planes
- RickSteves.com: Conquering Jet Lag
- ScientificAmerican.com: How to Prevent Jet Lag
- ScientificAmerican.com: Q&A: Why is Blue Light Before Bedtime Bad for Sleep?
- Skyscanner.net: How to Get Over Jet Lag: 14 Tips for Beating Timezone Tiredness
- SleepFoundation.org: Caffeine and Sleep
- SmarterTravel.com: Sleeping on Planes: Top Tips for Travelers
- TheAtlantic.com: Your Body's Internal Clock and How It Affects Your Overall Health
- TheGoodista.com: How to Get the Job Done with Chronic Jet Lag
- TheGuardian.com: How Does the Body Clock Work?
- TheVerge.com: Here Are the Secret Weapons for Beating Jet Lag
- Time.com: You Asked: How Can I Prevent Jet Lag?
- TravelAndLeisure.com: How to Beat Jet Lag
- TravelStrong.net: 3 Hacks to Beat Jet Lag Every Time You Fly
- USNews.com: How to Beat Jet Lag
- VeryWell.com: Anatomy and Sleep Functions of the Brain's Suprachiasmatic Nucleus
- VeryWell.com: The Possible Benefits of Pycnogenol
- Vogue.com: The Diet Trick That Will Keep Jet Lag at Bay this Thanksgiving
- WebMD.com: Alcohol and a Good Night's Sleep Don't Mix
- WebMD.com: Melatonin - Overview
- WebMD.com: Sleep and Your Body Clock - Topic Overview
Now Over to You!
What advice do you have to beat jet lag? Leave your comments below!