If you travel for work, or if you just love to travel, you know jet lag can become more than just a minor nuisance. If you don’t prepare for the effects of cross time-zone flying, you can suffer two or three days of loss of concentration, sleeplessness, irritability, and even gastrointestinal distress.
Jet lag disorder occurs when you fly across time zones. The more time zones you cross, the worse the effects of jet lag that you’ll feel. Your body and mind suffer because your internal clock is synced to your home time zone, not the new one. This internal clock is also called a circadian rhythm and is pinned to natural cycles of light and dark that regulate when you feel sleepy and how well you sleep.
Risk Factors for Jet Lag
While some people experience little or no jet lag when they travel, others are hit particularly hard by it. Some of the risk factors for developing jet lag when traveling include:
- Traveling east. When you travel east you lose an hour for each time zone you cross. When you travel west you gain an hour. Traveling east and losing time puts you at greater risk for jet lag.
- Frequent flying. If you fly a lot and often you are at greater risk than if you fly only occasionally.
- Being older. Older adults are more likely to suffer jet lag disorder than younger people.
- Crossing more than two time zones. The more time zones crossed, the worse the potential jet lag.
Other factors that contribute to jet lag are changes in cabin pressure inside the plane and low humidity, which can cause dehydration to sneak up on you.
It’s All About Sunlight
When sunlight enters your eye, the retina at the back of your eye sends signals to your hypothalamus, an area deep in the brain that contains the pineal gland. The pineal gland makes melatonin, a substance that regulates sleep along with bodily functions related to growth and sexuality.
When the pineal gland gets a strong signal of sunlight, it makes very little melatonin. When the light signal is low, the pineal gland releases enough melatonin to make you fall asleep in sync with the arrival of night.
When you fly across time zones, the cycle of light and darkness changes. The bad news is this can give you jet lag. The good news is, if you prepare for your flight ahead of time, you can artificially adjust your sleep cycle so the effects are minimal or not even noticed.
How to Prevent Jet Lag
The best way to prevent jet lag is to get light exposure in the morning and avoid it at night if you are traveling east, and reverse that if you are traveling west. If you are traveling east and will lose time, take a morning flight if possible, and the reverse if you are traveling west and will gain time.
Another effective strategy is to adjust your sleep pattern to the new time zone by altering your bedtime and rising time by one hour per day at least three days before your scheduled flight.
Over-the-counter melatonin supplements can also help. Take one to three milligrams of melatonin two hours before you’d like to fall asleep instead of one large dose just before you go to bed. Start two or three days before your flight, if possible.
Even though your pineal gland doesn’t yet know it is releasing melatonin on a new schedule, you can implement an artificial schedule ahead of time to ease the transition.
Be advised however that if you have epilepsy or are taking warfarin to thin your blood, doctors do not recommend using melatonin. Melatonin supplements also are not available in every country.
Other Ways to Minimize Jet Lag
The National Sleep Foundation advises the following strategies for coping with jet lag:
- Eat lightly when you arrive. Avoid chocolate and fried foods.
- Stay hydrated on the flight. Drink at least eight ounces of water for every hour you are in flight, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
- Avoid alcohol or caffeine at least four hours before bedtime. Both impair sleep. This means skipping those in-flight cocktails.
- Get out in the sunlight as often as possible once you arrive. Sunlight regulates your circadian rhythms naturally.
- Bring blindfolds and earplugs to block light and sound when you need to sleep. Use these both on the plane and when you arrive and it’s time to sleep.
Finally, if you are crossing four or more time zones on an international flight, get as much sleep as you can on the plane. Consider upgrading from coach to business class so you can have a reclining chair that makes it easier to sleep. Avoid using sleeping pills on the plane or once you arrive unless you are very familiar with their effects.
Rest assured that even if you experience some jet lag despite your best efforts, your body will adjust in three or four days and the tiredness and nausea will go away.
As more and more people fly regularly, science learns more about sleep and how to mitigate time zone changes. No magical jet lag pill exists at this time, but promising research suggests that someday jet lag will be a thing of the past.