Jet lag is a challenge for travelers and frequent flyers. It’s a temporal hiccup that disrupts our internal body clocks as we traverse multiple time zones. In this article, we delve into jet lag, exploring the factors influencing its duration and offering practical insights to help minimize its impact. From the science behind circadian rhythms to actionable tips for quicker recovery, let’s journey through the time warp of jet lag.
What Is Jet Lag?
Jet lag is a temporary sleep problem that manifests when the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythms, struggles to adjust to rapid changes in time zones. It’s typically experienced during long-distance air travel.
This disruption occurs because our bodies are finely tuned to a specific day-night cycle, influencing various biological functions such as sleep and hunger. When you cross multiple time zones quickly, as in the case of international flights, your internal clocks find it challenging to align with the new local time. The result is a temporary misalignment between your internal biological clock and the external environment. It can lead to a range of symptoms collectively known as jet lag. Common signs include fatigue, insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and digestive issues.
How Long Does Jet Lag Last?
The duration of jet lag varies from person to person. It’s influenced by factors such as the number of time zones crossed, the direction of travel, and the traveler’s overall health. For example, flying east typically makes jet lag worse than going west. This is because traveling east is going forward in time, and it’s opposed to our bodies’ clock. Generally, it takes about a day for the body to adjust to each time zone crossed when traveling eastward, while adjustment is typically faster when traveling westward.
For shorter flights or minimal time zone changes, the effects of jet lag may last only a day or two. However, for longer journeys with significant time zone differences, it can take up to a week for the body to fully acclimate to the new schedule. Your age may also factor into recovery time. Jet lag usually lasts longer for older adults.
What Are the Symptoms of Jet Lag?
Jet lag manifests through a spectrum of symptoms that collectively disrupt the body’s natural rhythm. It can leave you with temporary physiological disarray. One of the hallmark symptoms is fatigue, often accompanied by lethargy and a persistent sense of weariness as the body struggles to sync with the new time zone.
Other common symptoms include:
- Sleep Disturbance – insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns
- Mental Fog – difficulty concentrating and feeling “off”
- Drowsiness and Fatigue
- Upset Stomach
- Irritability and Mood Changes
While these symptoms vary in intensity and duration, they should go away after settling in a time zone. But is there a way to prevent them in the first place? Because let’s face it, no one wants to feel bad when traveling. Let’s get into how you can reap the benefits of travel without being exhausted.
What Is the Secret Cure for Jet Lag?
If only there were a magical jet lag pill! While there’s no secret cure for jet lag, there are simple strategies you can implement to help mitigate the duration and severity of symptoms. Let’s take a look at the best prevention techniques.
Start Adjusting Your Schedule Before Departure
Gradually shift your sleeping and waking times before your trip to align more closely with your destination’s time zone. Adjust your sleep and meal times around your destination’s time zone as much as possible about three to four days before your departure. This also goes for when you’re en route. For example, if you’re flying during your destination’s nighttime, try to sleep on the plane. Doing this will help your body be less thrown off its circadian rhythm.
You can also try using something like the Jet Lag Rooster. It does the math for you between your current time zone and destination to help you adjust your schedule.
Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight to counteract the dehydrating effects of air travel. Also, avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol, as they can contribute to dehydration.
While the thought of using the toilet on an airplane may make you cringe and therefore stop you from drinking water, think twice. Staying hydrated during your flight will help you get over jet lag quicker, and it also helps prevent leg swelling and blood clots.
Bask in Sunlight
Spend time outdoors in natural daylight upon arrival at your destination. Sunlight helps regulate your internal body clock and can assist in resetting your circadian rhythms. It will also help you stay awake to adjust to your destination’s time zone more quickly. Plus, I like to think that the sun’s ultraviolet light gives you a natural boost for a healthy trip ahead!
Get on the Time Zone Day 1
As soon as you arrive, try to adapt to the local time for meals and sleep. Exposure to natural light during daylight hours will help signal to your body that it’s time to be awake. If you arrive at your destination in the morning, stay awake until at least 9:00 p.m. in the new time zone. The earlier in your trip that you can adjust to the time zone, the quicker you’ll get over jet lag.
Don’t take more than a 30-minute nap during the day. But a 20-30 minute nap can help alleviate fatigue without interfering with your ability to sleep at night. Also, avoid caffeine or alcohol at least four hours before you go to bed since both act as stimulants.
Some travelers find melatonin supplements helpful in adjusting their sleep-wake cycle to the new time zone. However, I’m not an expert so be sure to consult with a healthcare professional before using melatonin or any type of sleep aid. Some can have side effects and may not be suitable for everyone.
Engaging in light physical activity will help combat fatigue and promote better sleep. However, it’s best to avoid strenuous exercise close to bedtime so you’re not wired and unable to get to sleep.
When I arrive at a new destination, I like to go for a long walk outdoors to get to know the area and soak in some sun. This inevitably lessens my jet lag and allows me to engage with a new place immediately.
Choose Flights Wisely
When possible, opt for flights that allow for gradual adjustments to time zone changes. If you’re traveling eastward, try to book flights that arrive in the evening. This allows you to go to bed sooner and not struggle to stay awake all day. For westward travel, consider flights arriving in the morning.
Overall, be patient with yourself and others traveling with you. Not everyone experiences jet lag or deals with it the same way. Allow yourself time to adjust. Recognize that it may take a few days for your body to fully acclimate to the new time zone, and be patient with the process.
Travel Tip: Want to see and do more? Check out my guide to budget travel.
Shorten Jet Lag on Your Next Trip
The duration and impact of jet lag can be managed with some simple strategies. While the effects of jet lag are generally temporary, lasting anywhere from a day to several days, the ability to expedite recovery is in your hands. From pre-flight adjustments in sleep patterns to post-arrival exposure to natural light and hydration, you can disrupt the symptoms and enjoy your trip more.
What jet lag prevention strategies have you tried? Let us know how it worked in the comments below.