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Jet Lag: Meaning, Symptoms and Treatment

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Jet Lag is a sleep disorder caused by quickly traveling across multiple time zones by airplane. The change in time zones can interfere with your usual circadian rhythms and make it difficult to adapt to your destination. Circadian rhythms are physiological changes that adhere to the body’s 24-hour biological clock. Circadian rhythms include sleep-wake cycles, body temperature changes, and hormone releases. Each of these circadian rhythms plays a part in your sleep schedule.

The harms of jet lag include stomach problems, fatigue, feeling ‘off’, impaired cognitive function, and negative moods. The jet lag symptoms are usually minor and go away within a few days or a week. Frequent travelers and older adults are at an increased risk for jet lag, and experts say jet lag is typically worse traveling east. The tips for managing jet lag include sunlight exposure, adjusting your sleep-wake schedule to your destination, and staying hydrated.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag is a temporary circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorder that can occur when you quickly travel across time zones by plane. The time change disrupts your normal circadian rhythms, which can make it harder to get on a good sleep schedule at your destination. A circadian rhythm is a series of physiological changes that adhere to the body’s 24-hour biological clock.

Light and darkness are the biggest influences on circadian rhythms. The difference in time zones also means changes in daytime and nighttime schedules. For example, it may be light out where you take off but dark and at your new destination. Even though it is nighttime when you arrive, your internal clock needs time to adjust because it was originally operating on an earlier schedule.

How Does Jet Lag Occur?

Jet lag occurs when you travel across multiple time zones on a plane. Changing time zones disrupts your circadian rhythms, which can make it harder to adjust to your destination schedule. Circadian rhythms are physiological changes that follow a 24-hour body clock. Examples of circadian rhythms include sleep-wake cycles, body temperature changes, and hormone releases.

Each of these circadian rhythms plays a part in your daily schedule. They are regulated by a master clock in the brain that primarily responds to light. The sleep-wake cycle is a circadian rhythm in which humans are wired to sleep at night and be awake during the day. A person’s body temperature fluctuates throughout the day, and it begins to drop in the evening to prepare for sleep.

A circadian rhythm regulates hormone production. For example, the body releases more melatonin at night. Melatonin is a hormone that promotes sleep and is another way the body prepares you for rest. Conversely, your melatonin numbers will drop in the morning.

What are the Causes of Jet Lag?

The causes of jet lag are traveling across multiple time zones, arrival time, frequent travel, age, and environmental factors.

  1. Multiple Time Zones: Changing time zones causes jet lag because your circadian rhythms are set to one location but then have to suddenly adapt to a new schedule.
  2. Arrival Time: Arrival times can cause jet lag because the time of day could make it harder to adjust when you get there. The reason for this is that even though your arrival time may be morning or night, your body still thinks it’s on your home schedule. Experts say travelers heading East often have worse jet lag because they lose time.
  3. Frequent Travel: People who travel regularly are more likely to experience jet lag symptoms because they constantly have to adjust time zones.
  4. Age: Older adults typically need more time to get over jet lag than younger individuals.
  5. Environmental Factors: The University of Michigan reports that environmental factors on the airplane or at the destination may contribute to jet lag. These factors include low oxygen levels, warm cabin temperature, decreased cabin pressure, low humidity, extended periods of minimal physical activity, and smoky or smoggy air.

What are the Links between Circadian Rhythms and Jet Lag?

The link between circadian rhythms and jet lag is that a disruption to the circadian rhythms caused by traveling over time zones can lead to jet lag. Circadian rhythms are physiological changes regulated by a master clock in the brain. 

This master clock operates on a 24-hour cycle, and it primarily responds to light and dark cues. Jet lag is the body’s response to that schedule change. For example, if it’s light out at your departure but dark out at your destination, your body will likely not be able to adjust right away, throwing off your sleep schedule.

Which Direction Increases the Effect of Jet Lag?

The direction that increases the effect of jet lag is east. Health experts say travelers heading east typically get worse jet lag because they lose time, whereas those heading west gain time. Losing time creates a ‘phase delay’ in which your bedtime and wake-up time are moved later. The more time zones you cross traveling east, the longer it takes to recover from jet lag. 

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What are the Common Symptoms of Jet Lag?

The common symptoms of jet lag include sleep problems, daytime fatigue, impaired cognitive function, stomach problems, an overall feeling of not being well, and negative mood changes. We list these symptoms in detail below.

  1. Sleep Problems: People with jet lag often experience sleep problems such as insomnia, waking up too early, and sleeping more than usual.
  2. Daytime Fatigue: Daytime fatigue is a common symptom of jet lag in which someone feels lethargic even after waking up.
  3. Impaired Cognitive Function: Someone experiencing jet lag disorder will likely have impaired cognitive functions such as trouble concentrating and diminished work or academic performance.
  4. Stomach Problems: Stomach problems are a symptom of jet lag. People with this disorder may experience diarrhea or constipation.
  5. Overall Sense of Not Feeling Well: Feeling ‘off’ or an overall sense of not being well is considered a jet lag symptom.
  6. Negative Mood Changes: People with jet lag may exhibit more negative moods like irritability, sadness, or anger.

Can Jet Lag Have Long-Term Consequences?

Yes, jet lag can have long-term consequences. A 2010 study from the University of California at Berkeley found that chronic jet lag could lead to long-term changes in the brain. These changes could develop into memory and learning problems. The researchers add that the memory and learning problems could go on for at least a month even after returning to a normal sleep-wake schedule. 

People who regularly fly across time zones can develop other long-term issues such as slower reaction times, higher risks for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and cancer, and reduced fertility. Experts advise that people allow themselves a day of recovery time for every 1-hour time difference.

How Long does Jet Lag Last?

Jet lag lasts from a few days to a week. How long jet lag lasts depends on several factors, such as the number of time zones crossed and your age. The recovery period is usually one day for each time zone crossed. Therefore, your jet lag should last about three days if you travel over three time zones. Older adults may require several days of recovery time per time zone. 

How can you Calculate your Jet Lag?

A jet lag calculator is an online tool that sets up a personalized plan to help sync your body to your destination. The calculator uses the number of time zones you cross, the direction you travel, and your regular sleeping pattern to develop the system. 

The calculator’s personalized plan for your trip focuses on sleep times and light exposure. The calculator tells you the best times to sleep and seek out light to overcome jet lag. 

What to do to Prevent Jet Lag

Tips to prevent jet lag include arriving early, getting quality rest before the trip, gradually adjusting your sleep schedule, managing bright light exposure, sticking to your new sleep schedule, staying hydrated, and sleeping on the plane. We detail how to prevent jet lag in the list below.

  1. Arrive Early: Arriving a few days early to your destination allows you extra time to get your body adjusted if you’re traveling for work.
  2. Sleep Well Before the Trip: Sleeping well before your trip is important because if you arrive sleep-deprived, it will only worsen jet lag symptoms.
  3. Gradually Adjust Your Schedule: Gradually adjusting your sleep schedule to your upcoming destination before the trip should help your body adapt easier.
  4. Manage Bright Light Exposure: Use light’s influence on circadian rhythms to help you adjust to your new schedule. For example, exposing yourself to morning light can help you adapt to an earlier time zone.
  5. Stick to New Schedule: Stick to your new schedule immediately after arriving at your destination. You may be tempted to nap at your hotel if you arrive during the day, but you should stay up until nighttime so you’ll be on schedule with that time zone.
  6. Stay Hydrated: Drinking lots of water before, during, and after your travels can help alleviate jet lag. The reason for this is that airplanes have dry air in the cabins that can cause dehydration, which worsens jet lag symptoms.
  7. Sleep on the Plane: Sleeping on the plane if it’s nighttime at your destination should help you adjust upon arrival. If you’re having difficulty dozing off, try using devices such as earplugs, neck pillows, or an eye mask.

How is Jet Lag Diagnosed?

Jet lag is usually self-diagnosed by the traveler and does not require a formal diagnosis from a doctor. The individual will often notice symptoms after traveling, which likely means they have jet lag.

Signs to look for include sleep problems, daytime fatigue, impaired cognitive function, stomach problems, feeling ‘off’, and negative mood changes. Consulting with a doctor may be needed in more severe jet lag cases in which symptoms go on for weeks. The physician will then evaluate the patient and possibly refer them to a sleep specialist.

What are the Treatment Options for Jet Lag?

The treatment options for jet lag include light therapy, medications, sunlight exposure, caffeine, and melatonin.

  1. Light Therapy: Light therapy is a form of treatment that involves exposure to artificial bright light that mimics sunlight. Light therapy can help your body adjust to a new time zone if you can’t get much natural light exposure.
  2. Medications: Sleeping pill medications may be used if you’re having trouble sleeping during the plane ride or at your destination. Experts say these medications may help you sleep more but won’t necessarily alleviate daytime jet lag symptoms. Medications are typically reserved for those who’ve had no success with alternative treatments.
  3. Sunlight Exposure: Getting out in the sun is a great way to set your internal clock and regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
  4. Caffeine: Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and espresso can help you stay awake as you adjust to your new time zone.
  5. Melatonin: Melatonin supplements are a natural sleep aid that may help if you can’t fall asleep. The body naturally releases more melatonin at night to help foster sleepiness, but some people use supplements to further support this process.

What Medications can be Used to Treat Jet Lag?

The medications to treat jet lag are sleeping pills such as Nonbenzodiazepines and Benzodiazepines. You can purchase some sleep aids over the counter at a local pharmacy, but a doctor must prescribe stronger sleeping pills. 

Sleeping pills are designed to temporarily treat sleep problems and should not be used long-term. Experts say sleeping pills may help you catch up on shut-eye but won’t always treat daytime jet lag symptoms.

Should you go see a doctor because of Jet Lag?

You should see a doctor for jet lag if you feel that your symptoms aren’t going away after several weeks. Most jet lag symptoms are minor and go away after a few days or a week. People who regularly travel might consider consulting with a doctor on ways to mitigate jet lag to avoid any long-term health problems.

Can the Quality of a Mattress Help Treat Jet Lag?

Yes, the quality of a mattress could help treat jet lag. One of the jet lag symptoms is insomnia, and an uncomfortable bed could make things worse. Mattresses impact sleep quality if they don’t provide a comfortable and supportive surface that alleviates any issues that keep someone from getting their best sleep. 

For example, people with joint pain need a bed with good pressure relief so that their joints don’t keep them up all night. To get good mattress quality for better sleep, consider factors like your health needs, personal preferences, body type, sleep positions, and whether you sleep with a partner.

What is the difference between Jet Lag and Social Jet Lag?

The difference between jet lag and social jet lag is that jet lag results from travel, and social jet lag is caused by a busy social life. Social jet lag is a term to describe changes in a person’s sleep pattern between the week and weekend that result in fatigue. 

One of the similarities between these two disorders is their symptoms, such as daytime sleepiness, cognitive issues, and negative moods. Additional social jet lag symptoms include an increased risk for long-term problems like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Another similarity between these conditions is that they are both caused by changes in circadian rhythms.

Jill Zwarensteyn

Jill Zwarensteyn


About Author

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Combination Sleeper