We’ve all suffered from it. After taking a flight across two or more time zones, you might find yourself craving an omelette in the middle of the night or ready for a good night’s sleep…at 9 a.m. It’s called jet lag, and it’s caused by the temporary difference between the sleep and wake cycle generated by our internal body clock at home, and the environmental rhythms of our destination time zone. Our sleep/activity cycle becomes affected, leading to disruptions in our physical and mental functioning.
You might recognize jet lag through the following signs:
Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling or staying asleep) and sleep fragmentation
You could be at high alert in the middle of the night at your destination, which further disrupts your ability to sleep at the desired local time. Sleep deprivation then ensues.
Excessive daytime sleepiness
You might feel drowsy during periods of the day when you most want to be awake.
Having trouble thinking, concentrating, reasoning or doing normal activities are common. Loss of attention and vigilance play a role in many motor vehicle accidents, so it’s important to be aware of your impaired performance at your new destination.
Conditions on the plane may contribute to abdominal discomfort and constipation. The lowered cabin pressure makes gas in the gut expand, potentially leading to feeling bloated.
It’s common to feel sick, weak, fatigued or have less energy than normal. Headaches and irritability are also known to occur.
Not all these symptoms are present in every case, and people may vary in their susceptibility to them. The more times zones you cross, the more likely you are to get jet lag; and the further you are from home, the longer it takes to get over it. While jet lag affects all age groups, older adults may have less pronounced symptoms and recover more slowly compared with younger individuals.
Once you’re home, expect it to take several days to adjust to the new time zone. Readjustment and resynchronization occur at a rate of about one hour per day after eastward travel and 1.5 hours per day after westward travel. Pre-existing sleep deprivation, stress, poor sleep habits, and the flight conditions may predispose you to more severe jet lag.
Try the following seven tricks to help mitigate and reduce the effects:
- When possible, choose daytime flights to minimize loss of sleep and fatigue.
- Avoid large fatty meals, caffeine and alcohol during the flight.
- Drink lots of water.
- Stay up until it’s dark once you arrive to your destination. Exposure to bright morning light can also help your body adjust to the new time zone. Bright light is more effective than ordinary indoor light. Resist the temptation to sleep during daytime hours for the first few days at destination, as this will decrease the ability to sleep at night and prolong the adjustment cycle.
- Eat meals at mealtime in the new time zone. For example, if you normally eat lunch at noon, eat at noon in the new time zone (not noon at home).
- Get some exercise, but not right before you are supposed to go to sleep.
While there is no evidence of the usefulness of homeopathic remedies or diet in treatment/prevention of jet lag, taking melatonin can help your body adjust to a new time zone. As a hormone that is naturally made by a gland in the brain, melatonin aligns sleep cycles and other physiological functions. The usual dose is two or three milligrams after dark each night, about half an hour before bedtime in the new time zone. It can be taken for up to four nights in the new time zone; after that, it likely won’t be needed. Ensure that you check with your doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist that it is safe for you to take melatonin. There are other prescription medications that may help with sleep issues associated with travel.
A WORD OF CAUTION: Melatonin can produce sleepiness and reduced alertness. Persons taking melatonin should not drive, operate heavy machinery, or perform tasks requiring alertness for four to five hours after taking melatonin. The timing of the dose of melatonin needs to be precise to avoid worsening the jet lag symptoms. The body normally has a cycle in which melatonin is secreted during the hours of darkness and inhibited during the hours of light; it reaches peak blood levels at around 2:00 am. When crossing time zones, this peak needs to be adjusted (shifted) so that it always peaks at this time of the night.