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Sleep Fundamentals || J is for Jet Lag

From our Sleeping is Fundamental series

Only pilots, flight attendants, and regular cross-continental flyers (military, businesspeople) can claim jet lag as a sleep disorder. Otherwise, it is experienced as a temporary and self-limiting rhythmic disruption.

jet lag is a circadian rhythm disorder

What is Jet Lag?

Most commonly, this circadian rhythm disorder occurs for anyone who has traveled by plane across multiple time zones.

Although temporary, jet lag can be somewhat disabling if the distances traveled are far and the time away is lengthy. Researchers suggest it will take at least as many days as time zones to recover from jet lag. Therefore, if you’ve traveled across 8 time zones, it’s likely you will not be completely recovered to your normal circadian rhythms for 8 days.

What happens when you have jet lag?

Your body cannot acclimate immediately to a new time zone because it is performing outside the parameters of one’s circadian system. If you typically eat and sleep at certain times of the day, the body and brain will notice when you don’t continue this pattern. They will also notice changes in natural light and your own activity levels, which may be completely out of character with what it expects.

This confusion of circadian triggers (light, meals, activity) can and usual does lead to symptoms such as:

  • Disturbed sleep patterns (you can’t sleep, you wake up too early, you experience excessive sleepiness during nonsleep periods of the day)
  • Fatigue (you’re awake but your body feels sluggish and nonreceptive to activity)
  • Trouble with focusing, attention, concentration on typical tasks
  • Digestive issues (constipation or diarrhea, most commonly)
  • Heavy menstrual cycles
  • General malaise
  • Tired muscles
These symptoms usually begin with 24 hours after you’ve arrived in a different time zone. It’s understood that easterly travel usually results in more severe symptoms when compared to westerly travel, as well.

For most people, jet lag is not necessarily a sleep disorder, just a side effect of plane travel. It’s when you’re a pilot or flight attendant, or someone who flies frequently, that jet lag can become a bona fide sleep disorder.

How to avoid jet lag symptoms

  • Thoughtfully time your light exposure in the new time zone to “reset” your rhythms. In example, you can wear sunglasses in the morning if you’ve traveled east. Wear them in the afternoon if you’ve traveled west. In either case, doing so will nudge your brain to reset its rhythms.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, stimulants and sedatives while flying. Take sedative or stimulant prescriptions on local time when you arrive at your destination, if possible.
  • Find ways to adjust immediately to the local light and time zone upon arrival. Expect to take a day to feel out of sorts.
  • If you are traveling for an important event or meeting and need to be alert, you plan to travel two days ahead. This way, you will have time to adjust prior to your appointment.
  • Properly timed light therapy can be a great non-drug alternative. There are travel lightboxes, eyewear, and visors specifically used for this.
  • Treating jet lag can include a carefully timed dose of melatonin. The key to using melatonin is to time it with the dimming of natural afternoon daylight; this way your pineal gland has a chance to re-orient with local light and work more efficiently.
  • Other proprietary herbal blends used to help reset rhythms include valerian, GABA or skullcap. Please check drug interactions and side effects before you take them. Supplements can be dangerous if mixed with certain prescriptions.
  • Once you arrive, the next time you go to bed, plan to wake up at an appropriate morning hour, then stick to that time. Exposure to morning sunlight is a powerful aid in jump-starting your “wake” drive.
  • Also, plan to go to bed at the same time every night (at a time that is locally appropriate). This ensures you get enough sleep. Try using an eye mask if necessary to block out light.
  • While there is no official “jet lag” diet, it’s advised to eat more light, healthy carbs before periods of sleep. Save protein-rich foods for daytime meals when you want to be most awake.
  • It’s never a bad idea to “bank” some sleep prior to traveling. This can provide relief for inevitable jet lag-induced sleep deprivation.
  • 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. Either effort can make the transition easier once you arrive.
  • Sleep on the plane if you expect to arrive at night anyway. This can help reset your sleep drive.

11 popular links related to jet lag in SleepyHeadCentral

  1. How to avoid social jet lag
  2. Managing jet lag while traveling over the holiday
  3. Sleep tips and news for travelers
  4. Light therapy hacks and more to reset your circadian rhythms
  5. How do misaligned circadian rhythms affect the body?
  6. Circadian rhythm basics in 20 links
  7. If you’re feeling sleepy on a flight, imagine what it must be like being a pilot
  8. SLEEP STUFF: Light therapy
  9. Sleep Disorders 101
  10. SHED SOME LIGHT on CIRCADIAN DISORDERS
  11. Is Your Body Clock Broken? There’s Help For You

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