How to Get Over Jet Lag
If you have ever traveled across two or more time zones, you might have noticed you felt unusually tired or even unwell in the days after reaching your destination. These symptoms are part of jet lag, a temporary but official circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorder. We discuss what happens during jet lag and how to treat it.
What Is Jet Lag?
Jet lag arises from a mismatch between your internal body clock's schedule and the local time zone. Your internal clock regulates your circadian rhythms, which are natural physical fluctuations that occur over each 24-hour day. The sleep-wake cycle is one circadian rhythm. When you enter a new time zone quickly, but your body is still accustomed to waking up and falling asleep according to the schedule of another time zone, you might experience jet lag.
Jet Lag Symptoms
To be diagnosed with jet lag, a person must meet three criteria:
- They experience either trouble sleeping or excessive tiredness, and sleep less than usual, after traveling across two or more time zones.
- They begin to feel unwell or experience impaired functioning in the first one or two days after traveling.
- Their sleep issues and symptoms are not better explained by another sleep or health issue.
In addition to the official diagnostic criteria, people experiencing jet lag often have multiple other symptoms, such as:
- Digestive issues
- Memory problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Impaired decision-making
- Driving problems
- Reduced athletic ability
How Long Does Jet Lag Last?
Jet lag symptoms begin within the first two days after traveling and last anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks in extreme cases. Jet lag symptoms tend to be more severe and long-lasting after longer travel. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates that a person's circadian rhythm requires roughly one day of adjustment for each time zone they cross while traveling. So, if you travel across three time zones, you might expect three days of jet lag symptoms as you adjust.
People who travel from west to east tend to experience more severe jet lag than those traveling from east to west. People traveling eastward must adjust to earlier bedtimes, and for many, falling asleep earlier than normal is more difficult than staying up later. Traveling across six or more time zones shifts the circadian rhythm the other way and may give rise to extended jet lag symptoms, which could last weeks.
Different people experience jet lag to different degrees due to multiple factors. For example, some people have circadian rhythms that are slightly shorter or longer than 24 hours, which could affect how quickly they adjust to a new time zone depending on the direction they are traveling. Also, whether or not you are able to sleep while traveling could affect your later symptoms.
Tips for Jet Lag Relief
There are certain actions you can take to reduce jet lag symptoms after traveling. All of them involve trying to adjust your sleep schedule to the time zone of your new location, so you can sleep well on vacation.
Get Enough Sleep Before You Go
Sleep disruptions or insufficient sleep can worsen jet lag. Prepare for your holiday by obtaining restful sleep in the leadup and during your flight, using an eye mask and earplugs to block out distractions. For longer trips, it may help to start slowly shifting your sleep schedule to your destination’s time zone before you leave. Once you arrive at your destination, avoid excessively long naps during the day.
Take Melatonin Supplements
Melatonin is a natural hormone found in that body that helps regulate our internal body clock. Studies show taking melatonin supplements can reduce jet lag symptoms. Experts recommend taking 3 to 6 milligrams of melatonin daily as needed, for no more than five days after travel.
If you have traveled eastward, you should take melatonin supplements in the late afternoon or evening, to help you fall asleep earlier than normal. If you have traveled westward, take melatonin in the early morning to help delay your circadian rhythm.
Certain people, such as those with epilepsy or those taking an anticoagulant drug, should talk to their doctor before trying melatonin supplements. Melatonin can cause side effects, like tiredness, headaches, and dizziness. Although it is available over the counter in the U.S., melatonin may require a prescription in other countries.
Optimize Light Exposure
Light influences your circadian rhythm, so you can use light exposure to your advantage after traveling across multiple time zones. The easiest way to do this is by spending plenty of time outside in the sunlight, which ensures exposure to light at times that work with the local clock.
Usually, light exposure in the morning primes us to fall asleep earlier, and light exposure in the evening primes us to stay up later. After flights that cross up to eight time zones, exposure to evening light after traveling westward may help you stay up later, and exposure to morning light can help you wake in the morning after traveling eastward.
Strategically Use Caffeine
Caffeine can help you stay awake during the daytime in your new time zone, but make sure you do not ingest so much that it keeps you awake when you want to sleep. After traveling eastward, caffeine in the morning around 8 a.m. can help reduce fatigue and make morning wake-up easier. When you have traveled westward and want to stay up later, try ingesting caffeine three hours before bedtime.
Eat on a Schedule
In addition to light exposure, when you eat also affects your circadian rhythm. Eating a high-protein breakfast after arrival and eating meals on the schedule of your new time zone might help you adjust.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
In most people, jet lag resolves fairly quickly and does not lead to serious problems. If you find your jet lag symptoms persist for weeks after travel, however, see your doctor. You could be developing chronic insomnia or dealing with a separate underlying disorder.
Jet lag symptoms vary from person to person, so you may need to experiment to find prevention techniques that work for you. If you travel regularly and experience major issues with jet lag, your doctor may consider prescribing hypnotic or stimulant drugs to help adjust your circadian rhythm to new time zones.
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