Jet Lag

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Table of contents
OverviewWhat is Jet Lag?Causes of Jet LagSymptoms of Jet LagManaging and preventing Jet LagConclusion
Navin Khosla NowPatientGreen tick
Medically reviewed by Navin Khosla, BPharm and written by Rajive Patel, BPharm - Updated on 26 Jan 2024
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Jet lag is a common phenomenon that many people experience when they travel across multiple time zones. It occurs when there is a mismatch between a person’s internal circadian rhythms and the local time at their destination. This temporary sleep problem can cause a range of symptoms, including fatigue, insomnia, mental health and mood disturbances in vulnerable people, digestive issues, and changes in body temperature. However, there are strategies that can help minimize the effects of Jet lag and make the transition to a new time zone smoother. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the causes of Jet lag, its symptoms, and effective ways to manage and prevent it.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag, also known as jet lag disorder, is a short term sleep disruption that occurs when a person’s internal circadian clock is out of sync with the local time at their new location. The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock that regulates various biological processes, including sleep-wake cycles, hormone production, and metabolism. It is influenced by external cues, such as daylight and darkness, which help maintain a regular sleep schedule. Jet lag is a type of circadian rhythm sleep disorder.

When you travel across a number of time zones, your internal clock struggles to adjust to the new time zone, leading to a disruption in your sleep patterns and other bodily functions. The more time zones you cross, the more severe the symptoms of jet lag are likely to be. Jet lag can affect anyone who travels across time zones, but frequent flyers, such as pilots, flight attendants, and business travellers are particularly susceptible.

Causes of Jet Lag

Jet lag occurs due to a discrepancy between the timing of your body’s internal clock and the local time at your destination. Several factors contribute to this misalignment:

Disruption of Circadian Rhythms

The primary cause of jet lag is the disruption of your body’s circadian rhythms. These rhythms are regulated by a complex network of biological processes that influence your sleep-wake cycle. Light exposure plays a crucial role in synchronizing your internal clock with the external environment. When you travel across time zones, your exposure to light and darkness changes, causing your circadian rhythms to become out of sync with the local time.

Length and direction of travel

The severity of jet lag symptoms can vary depending on the length and direction of your travel. Generally, traveling eastward tends to result in more intense jet lag symptoms compared to traveling westward. This is because it is easier for your body to delay your internal clock (e.g., staying awake longer) than to advance it (e.g., falling asleep earlier). The more time zones you cross, the greater the disruption to your circadian rhythms and the more pronounced the symptoms of jet lag.

Individual factors

Certain individual factors can influence the susceptibility to jet lag and the severity of its symptoms. Age is one such factor, as older adults may experience more difficulty adjusting to a new time zone compared to younger individuals. Additionally, your sleep patterns, overall health, and ability to adapt to change can all impact how jet lag affects you.

Symptoms of Jet Lag

Jet lag can manifest in various ways, affecting both your physical and mental well-being. The symptoms of jet lag typically emerge within a day or two after traveling across multiple time zones. The most common symptoms include:

Sleep problems

One of the hallmark symptoms of jet lag is disrupted sleep. You may experience difficulty falling asleep at the desired bedtime or waking up too early in the morning. Your sleep may also be fragmented, leading to poor sleep quality and feeling unrested upon awakening.

Daytime fatigue and lack of alertness

Jet lag often causes excessive daytime sleepiness and feelings of fatigue. You may struggle to stay awake and alert during the day, making it challenging to concentrate and perform at your usual level.

Digestive issues

Many people experience digestive problems as a result of jet lag. These can include constipation, diarrhea, stomach discomfort, bloating, and changes in appetite. Jet lag can disrupt the normal functioning of your digestive system, leading to gastrointestinal discomfort.

Mood disturbances

Jet lag can also affect your mood and emotional well-being. You may experience irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and a general sense of unease. These mood disturbances are often a result of the disruption to your sleep patterns and the physiological changes associated with jet lag.

Physical and cognitive impairment

Jet lag can impair your physical and cognitive functioning, making it difficult to perform daily tasks and activities. You may notice a decline in your ability to concentrate, remember information, and make decisions. Physical performance, such as coordination and reaction time, can also be negatively impacted by jet lag.

How is Jet Lag different to travel fatigue?

Feeling tired after you’ve had a long days travel can be confused with Jet lag. Travel fatigue, however includes symptoms such as tiredness and headaches, that may occur due to the physical stress of travel.

Airplane cabins, may have dry, cool, low-pressure air, which can cause respiratory problems and dehydration. Changes in air pressure can also cause bloating, and long periods of sitting and lack of movement can cause swelling in the lower-limbs. Sleeping upright is also not easy to do in an airplane seat, especially with constant in-flight interruptions, and getting good quality rest when travelling can be difficult.

These factors can cause you to feel very tired after a long flight. This however, is not the same as Jet lag, as travel fatigue does not affect your circadian rhythm. Travel fatigue will also normally go away after a good night’s rest, while Jet lag can last for days or even weeks. It is possible for you to have both travel fatigue and Jet lag after a long flight, but Jet lag is more likely to have longer lasting and extensive symptoms.

Managing and preventing Jet Lag

While jet lag cannot be completely avoided, there are several strategies that can help minimize its effects and facilitate a quicker adjustment to the new time zone. By implementing these techniques, you can maximize your comfort and well-being during and after long-distance travel.

Plan ahead

Before your trip, gradually adjust your sleep schedule to align with the time zone of your destination. If you are traveling east, try going to bed and waking up slightly earlier in the days leading up to your departure. For westward travel, shift your sleep schedule to later hours. This gradual adjustment can help your body adapt to the new time zone more smoothly.

Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight to counteract the dehydrating effects of air travel. Cabin air tends to be dry, which can exacerbate the symptoms of jet lag. Proper hydration supports overall well-being and can help alleviate some of the discomfort associated with jet lag.

Time your light exposure

Light exposure plays a crucial role in regulating your circadian rhythms. When traveling east, expose yourself to bright light in the morning to help shift your internal clock to the new time zone. Conversely, seek bright light in the evening if you are traveling west. Spending time outdoors and exposing yourself to natural light can aid in adjusting to the local time at your destination.

Optimize sleep environment

Create a sleep-friendly environment to promote restful sleep. Use eye masks, earplugs, and white noise machines to block out any potential disturbances. Maintain a cool and comfortable temperature in your sleeping area, and ensure that the room is dark and quiet. Bringing familiar items, such as a favorite pillow or blanket, can also help create a sense of comfort and familiarity.

Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol

While a cup of coffee or tea can help you stay alert during the day, it’s important to moderate your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine can interfere with sleep and exacerbate the symptoms of jet lag. Similarly, avoid alcohol, as it can disrupt your sleep patterns and dehydrate your body.

Incorporate strategic napping

Short naps can help combat fatigue and increase alertness during the day. Limit your naps to no more than 20-30 minutes and avoid napping too close to bedtime, as it may interfere with nighttime sleep. Strategic napping can provide a quick energy boost without disrupting your sleep-wake cycle.

Consider Melatonin supplements

Melatonin is a hormone produced by your body to help make you feel sleepy and manage your circadian rhythm. It is normally produced in the evening, several hours before bedtime, and is released at night. Your natural cycle of producing Melatonin can be disrupted by Jet Lag.

Melatonin is available only with a prescription in the U.K., but is available as a dietary supplement in some other countries. 1 to 3mg of Melatonin can be used to reset your body clock and help with sleep if taken at the right time. Research shows that Melatonin may help to reduce jet lag. Melatonin, like light, can affect your body clock. Timing of when you take Melatonin is very important. Some people however, are recommended not to take Melatonin. You should check whether it is safe for you to take Melatonin with your doctor. You are advised not to take Melatonin for the first time on your flight, in case you have an adverse reaction.

Other sleeping pills, include prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines. Natural sleep aids, can help you fall asleep or stay asleep, but will not change your circadian rhythm. They may even prevent the diagnosis of an ongoing issue of Jet Lag. Sleep medicines may also have side effects, such as an increased risk of drowsiness, which may lead to falls and accidents. Speak to your doctor before taking Melatonin or any other sleep aids, preferably before your trip, to discuss the risks and benefits of taking the medication.

Stay active and exercise

Engaging in physical activity and exercise can help combat fatigue and improve sleep quality. Take advantage of opportunities to move your body during your journey, such as stretching or walking around the cabin. Once you arrive at your destination, engage in regular exercise to help reset your circadian rhythms and promote overall well-being.

Follow local time

Upon arrival at your destination, adjust your daily routines and activities to align with the local time as quickly as possible. This includes eating meals at appropriate times for the new time zone and avoiding napping if it is daytime at your destination. By adhering to the local schedule, you can help your body adapt more efficiently to the new time zone.

Utilize technology and Jet Lag Apps

There are several mobile applications, such as Timeshifter, that provide personalized advice and strategies for managing jet lag. These apps consider factors such as your travel itinerary, sleep patterns, and light exposure to create a customized plan to minimize the effects of jet lag. Utilizing technology can help optimize your adjustment to a new time zone.

Conclusion

Jet lag is a temporary sleep problem that can disrupt your comfort and well-being when traveling across multiple time zones. By understanding its causes and implementing effective strategies, you can minimize the effects of jet lag and make the transition to a new time zone smoother. Planning ahead, optimizing light exposure, maintaining proper hydration, and following local time are key factors in managing and preventing jet lag. Remember to consult with a healthcare professional before using any supplements or medications, and prioritize self-care practices such as exercise, restful sleep, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. With these strategies in place, you can make the most of your travels and enjoy a seamless adjustment to different time zones.

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