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Sleep Disorders 101 || What is Jet Lag Disorder?

Dry, bloodshot eyes can also
be a symptom of jet lag

Anyone who has traveled by air across time zones can relate to the some or all of the symptoms of Jet Lag Disorder, which can include:

  • Disturbed sleep patterns (you can’t sleep, you wake up too early, you experience excessive sleepiness during nonsleep periods of the day)
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble with focusing, attention, concentration on typical tasks
  • Digestive issues (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Heavy menstrual cycles
  • General malaise
  • Tired muscles

Jet lag is a temporary circadian rhythm disorder in which your body fails to acclimate immediately to a new time zone, leading to these potential symptoms. Generally it occurs after you cross more than two time zones. When you move forward or backward “in time,” you are also moving forward or backward through cycles of sunlight, which is really where the problem comes in. Jet lag is about both time (your “body clock”) and light. All living things entrain their sleep-wake (or active-inactive) rhythms to the rise and fall of the sun. Changing time zones means you are experiencing different blocks of both time and light than your body and brain are accustomed to. Another part of the brain, the pineal gland, requires exposure to light in order to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps you to fall asleep. If your travel times are at odds with your sleep patterns, it could be due to an imbalance in melatonin production caused by traveling across time (and light) zones.

Your body has a main biological “clock” in the brain–the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus or SCN–which notifies many other systems about what “time” it is. Indeed, each and every cell in your body is theorized to have its own body clock, which synchronizes with the SCN.

The digestive system is also thought to operate by its own clock, using both food consumption and light to set body rhythms in such a way as to conveniently limit digestive processes while you sleep. This is why you might, in fact, have digestive problems as a result of jet lag, as the digestive system clock is not in sync with SCN.

Having jet lag can be problematic because the times you are accustomed to eating or sleeping may not fit comfortably inside your new schedule. You may be excessively tired in the day just as everyone else is going outside to enjoy the day, or you may want to eat an overlarge meal in the middle of the night.

Jet lag symptoms typically set in within 24 hours of arrival at your destination. The farther you travel, the more severe or long-lasting your symptoms can be. Easterly travel usually results in more severe symptoms when compared to westerly travel, as well.

Researchers indicate that it takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed. If you crossed five time zones, for instance, it will take you five days to recover from jet lag, either because you have acclimated to the new time zone or as a result of returning to your home time zone. Don’t worry too much; for most people, jet lag is temporary and repairs itself. In their case, it’s not a disorder at all, but a problem that fixes itself.

However, if you’re a pilot or business traveler who flies frequently, Jet Lag Disorder can become an ongoing problem for you. Elderly people can also require more time to recover from jet lag as well.

If you want to avoid the symptoms of jet lag, you can try the following:

  1. Carefully time your light exposure in the new time zone to “reset” your rhythms. Wear sunglasses in the morning on eastern time and in the afternoon on western time to trick your brain into resetting its rhythms.
  2. Drink plenty of water; air travel can lead to dehydration which can then exacerbate many other kinds of problems, including jet lag.
  3. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, stimulants and sedatives while in the air. For sedative or stimulant prescriptions, it might be better to start take them on local time when you arrive at your destination. Taking them while traveling in flight can aggravate jet lag as well.
  4. Be prepared to adjust immediately to the local light and time zone you arrive at and expect to take a day to feel out of sorts.
  5. If you are traveling for an important event or meeting where you need to be alert, you might wish to travel two days ahead in order to have time to adjust prior to your appointment.
  6. Pharmaceutical treatments for Jet Lag Disorder including pharmaceutical options (sedatives such as benzodiazepines–so-called “Z” class drugs such as zolpidem [Ambien]– and nonbenzodiazepines–triazolam [Halcion]). Remember, drugs can have side effects.
  7. Light therapy, which involves timing your exposure to specific kinds of light using special lamps at certain times of day, can be a great non-drug alternative. There are travel lightboxes specifically used for this.
  8. Alternative treatments for Jet Lag Disorder include melatonin (you only need .5mg for it to be effective, despite over-the-counter doses of 2mg or more) and certain proprietary herbal blends (often including valerian, GABA or skullcap). The key to using melatonin is to time it with the dimming of daylight so your pineal gland can operate more efficiently. As for herbal blends, please check drug interactions and side effects before you take them as they can be dangerous if mixed with certain prescriptions.
  9. It is always more important to wake up at the same time of day than to go to bed at the same time of day. This is because your exposure to morning sunlight helps set your wakefulness drive for the rest of the day. While traveling, you might try to artificially “reset” your rise time while in another time zone to match the one you have at home in order to help lessen the impact of jet lag.
  10. While there is no official “jet lag” diet, it’s good to practice eating more carbs before periods of sleep and protein rich foods during the times of day when you want to be most awake.
  11. It’s never a bad idea to sleep a little extra prior to traveling to lighten your sleep debt before you head out.
  12. You can try to stay up later gradually, prior to your trip, for westerly travel, or go to bed earlier, prior to your trip, for easterly travel, to make the transition easier once you arrive.
  13. Sleep on the plane if you expect to arrive at night anyway. This can help reset your sleep drive.

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2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. POLL: What’s your chronotype? It may no longer be a night owl or early bird
  2. Light therapy hacks and more to reset your circadian rhythms

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