What is Jet Lag? How to Get Rid of It
Jet lag is where your normal sleep schedule is disrupted by a flight, usually a long one. Symptoms include feeling tired during the day and irritability. But, it’s very common and can be easily gotten rid of. Let’s take a look at how.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag occurs when your usual sleep pattern is disturbed after a long flight1. It’s temporary, and can affect anyone who travels across time zones in a short period of time. Symptoms include:
- Disturbed sleep
- Lack of concentration
- Daytime fatigue
- Difficulty functioning at your usual level
- Stomach problems e.g. constipation
- Increased irritability
- Reduced alertness
- General feeling of being unwell
- Mood swings2
What causes jet lag?
Your body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, signals to your body when it’s time to sleep – and wake up. When you travel across time zones, your body clock is synced to the original zone, not the new one you’ve traveled to. This causes jet lag, also known as time zone change syndrome or desynchronosis3.
Essentially, your body clock is driven by an internal time-keeping system, but is affected by external environmental factors, such as the light-dark cycle of daytime and nighttime. This is why shift workers sometimes find it difficult to sleep, for example. So, when the body clock needs to be reset and is out of sync, jet lag results. People often find themselves wanting to sleep even though it’s daylight outside, for example.
Factors that influence jet lag
There’s no way to prevent jet lag, nor are you guaranteed to get it if you take a long flight. There are certain factors that will influence the chance of it coming on. These include:
Those who have had jet lag before are often more prone to getting it again4. If you travel often, for example for work, you may be more prone to getting it than others.
Lack of sleep before travel can impact the severity of jet lag, and how long it takes to wear off.
Stress and sleep do not go hand in hand, so being stressed will likely worsen the symptoms of jet lag.
The trip itself
The trip you take can impact jet lag, such as:
- Arrival time
- Time zones crossed
- Local daylight hours
- Flight time
Some people are simply more prone to getting jet lag than others, regardless of external factors. This includes age and physical health. The reasons why aren’t fully understood, but some circadian rhythms are more easily disrupted.
What is travel fatigue?
Jet lag and travel fatigue are two different things, as travel fatigue isn’t to do with the disruption of circadian rhythms. Travel fatigue is more to do with feeling generally exhausted by travelling itself, for example getting a poor night’s sleep in an airplane chair or changes in cabin pressure. It usually goes away after a good night’s sleep, whereas jet lag can linger for days.
Travel fatigue, can however, make the symptoms of jet lag worse or contribute to it5.
How to get rid of jet lag
Jet lag is incredibly common, and it’s important to remember it’s only temporary. However, it can persist for days, and quality sleep is essential for both mental and physical health, so it’s normal to want to be rid of it as soon as possible. While there’s no treatment as such, and it can’t be prevented, there are ways to reduce its effects.
Before the flight
You can give yourself the best chance of avoiding jet lag by:
- Choosing a flight that arrives in the early evening (local time) so you can get to bed at a decent time, say 10-11pm
- Looking up the time zones for your destination and work out how many hours’ difference you’re dealing with
- Getting your body clock ready, for example going to bed and waking up earlier (or later) for a few days before you travel
- Minimising travel stress by ensuring you’re prepared and have plenty of time
- Eating healthily and choosing light meals
During the flight
Here are some things you should do while travelling:
- Drink lots of water, dehydration can make symptoms worse
- Avoid caffeine or alcohol
- Use an eye mask and ear plugs to block out light and noise
- Try and nap strategically, for example sleeping when it’s night-time at your destination
- Change the time on your watch or phone to your destination’s time as soon as you board
- Get up and walk down the aisles every now and again, and stretch your legs often
When you arrive
Reached your destination? Reduce jet lag symptoms by:
- Avoiding heavy meals and alcohol
- Avoiding exercise
- Spending time outdoors, ideally when it’s daytime
- Sunshine can help reset your body clock, so get outside in prime daylight hours
- Only sleeping at nighttime
- Setting an alarm to adapt to local time and avoid oversleeping
- Power napping for 20-30 minutes at a time only
- Avoiding sugary or salty foods
- Drinking herbal teas
How long does jet lag last?
Jet lag can be persistent, and can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. 5-28 days is generally how long it can last. Usually, symptoms persist for 1-1.5 days per time zone crossed, however this varies depending on individual circumstances.
If it’s been longer than that and you’re still struggling to sleep, jet lag might not be the answer. But, it’s important you prioritise your sleep, so try to improve it by:
- Reducing stress levels
- Promoting a healthy sleep environment e.g. clean bedding
- Meditating and practicing relaxation techniques
- Blocking out all light and noise
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine
- Avoiding playing on your phone/watching the telly late at night
- Setting a regular sleep schedule and sticking to it
If you still can’t seem to drift off at night, you could be suffering from other sleep problems, such as insomnia, for example.
Prioritise a good night’s sleep
It’s easy not to consider sleep when it comes to health, however, it’s vital you make it a priority. Regular poor sleep can affect overall health and make you prone to certain conditions, such as heart disease6. The good news is that jet lag is temporary, and there are ways to reduce the chance of it happening, and ease symptoms.