If you’ve ever traveled across time zones by airplane, or had a job where you needed to do shift work, then you probably have an idea of what jet lag feels like. Your brain feels foggy and disoriented, your sleep is disturbed, your muscles may be sore, your stomach could be upset, and nothing–absolutely nothing–feels right!
What is Jet Lag?
Circadian rhythms are part of the body’s system that is responsible for regulating sleep, wakefulness, appetite, hormone release, and other bodily functions. When circadian rhythm cycles are seriously interrupted, jet lag is often experienced. Jet lag is a physiological condition that impacts a variety of a person’s biological functions.
Although the difference of just a couple of time zones doesn’t typically have a significant effect on adults, it can still create mild disruptions to your body’s patterns. Usually, the more time zones a person crosses, the worse their jet lag symptoms might be–and the longer it is likely to last.
Some other factors that may affect the severity of jet lag include:
Age of the person. Older people tend to be less flexible and have more difficulty with jet lag than younger people. Children are often very flexible when it comes to jet lag.
Nap takers. People who are accustomed to taking naps on a regular basis may not be as impacted by jet lag as their bodies may be used to sleeping at unusual times of the day.
Frequent flyers. People who work in the airline industry and fly often, or those who travel regularly for business, may be more likely to experience jet lag.
Flying eastward. If your trip is toward the east and you are “losing” time, then you may struggle more with jet lag. People who “gain” time by flying westward doe not seem to struggle as much with jet lag.
Causes of Jet Lag
As flight by air is a modern-day option, jet lag is a fairly new health issue that is often categorized as a temporary sleeping disorder. Although people who do shift work may also experience similar symptoms, it is not exactly the same because there is no actual travel involved.
Some of the reasons that people experience jet lag include:
Internal Clock Interruption
When your circadian rhythms are interrupted, your body’s internal clock may take some time to adjust. Flying across time zones can be confusing to your brain and body. For instance, when you fly to Hawaii from New York, you’ll cross six times zones. If you arrive at 8 am, then it will be time teat breakfast and start your day in Hawaii. But because you are still on New York time, your brain and body will think that it is 2 am–time to be sleeping!
Atmosphere in an Airplane
Flying can be difficult on the body. The pressure inside the cabin at high altitudes can make people feel unwell, even if they are flying directly south or north and don’t cross any time zones! Also, airplanes are notorious for having low humidity levels, which can cause dehydration and contribute to jet lag symptoms. Plus, the recycled air in such an enclosed space may permit germ exposure.
Our bodies are strongly influenced by sunlight as it has a direct connection with the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps to provide synchronization to the body’s cells. If you don’t get enough sunlight during the day (because you’ve been sleeping on a dark airplane!), your body will miss out on melatonin and this can disrupt your ability to sleep at night.
Do I Have Jet Lag?
Some people have gone to visit a doctor during a bout of jet lag, thinking that they have contracted a virus or parasite from the place they were visiting. And although jet lag may make you feel like you are actually dying–you probably aren’t!
Here are some of the signs and symptoms that may indicate that you have jet lag:
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Inability to stay awake during the day
- Insomnia and/or an inability to sleep at night
- General feeling of malaise
- Brain fog with difficulty concentrating or functioning normally
- Extreme hunger but feeling ill when eating
- Lack of appetite at meal times
- Mood changes and irritability
- Anxiety and stress
- Muscle aches or backaches (may be caused by cramped position during flight)
- Swelling in the feet and/or ankles
Ways to Reduce Jet Lag
According to experts at Mayo Clinic, recovery from jet lag often takes approximately one day per time zone traveled. This means that jet lag experienced flying from London to New York might take about five days to recover from, as you would be crossing five time zones. But there may be some things you can do to reduce the impact that jet lag has on your life.
If you have the opportunity to slowly adjust your sleep and eating schedule (to align with the new time zone) in advance of your flight, this could help you mitigate the effects of jet lag.
Allowing yourself to be exposed to natural light should help your brain and body to re-set its rhythms more quickly.
It’s better to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and other substances that may have a stimulating effect and could disturb your sleep.
Although natural sunlight is ideal, supplementing with melatonin could be helpful. Doctors often recommend taking 3 milligrams of a melatonin supplement about 3 hours prior to going to sleep.
People who have active lifestyles may respond better to jet lag. Exercise gently, eat light but healthy meals, and drink plenty of water to remain hydrated.
The sooner you can get into the rhythm of the sleeping schedule for your new location, the better. If you don’t normally take naps, then taking them in your new location can make things worse. When you nap midday, this can confuse your body into thinking that it is nighttime when it is actually just afternoon. This can interrupt your regular sleep cycle and extend the time of your adjustment period.
Jet lag can be extremely inconvenient–especially if it interrupts your vacation or business trip! But by thinking and planning ahead just a bit, you can reduce the effects that jet lag has on your life. Stay healthy and have fun traveling!