How to Stop Jet Lag Messing With Your Sleep

7 min read

Last Modified 20 October 2021 First Added 18 July 2017

By Jessica Kadel

Jet lag definition:

a maladjustment of circadian rhythms that results from traveling through several time zones in a short span of time. Rest, work, eating, body temperature, and adrenocortical-secretion cycles may require several days to adjust to local time.

Source: APA dictionary

With the freedom to travel opening up again, the anticipation for sun, sand and sea grows. Although we dream of being sun-kissed in long-distance destinations we can all brag about, a long-haul flight rarely comes without jet lag. As one of the most common sleep disorders, jet lag can affect all travellers, from first-time fliers to those who have stacked up thousands of air miles. If you find you’re at risk of the dreaded jetlag this summer, here are some tips to help your sleeping pattern get back on track.

What is jet lag?

Jet lag, or jet lag disorder, is the name for a temporary sleep disorder caused by travel across multiple time zones. It has a host of possible symptoms which vary between individuals. Jet lag can impact some people with as little change as the hour shift involved in daylight savings, but it generally occurs when travelling across three or more time zones.

The science of jet lag:

A chronobiological condition resulting from disruptions to the body’s circadian rhythm, jet lag can produce a wide variety of symptoms from nausea to problems with concentration and gastrointestinal issues. The name is directly connected to the jet engine, the invention of which facilitated human transit at a speed which led to jet lag. The condition was classified in the DSM-IV as a Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder (CRSWD), but was removed in DSM-5.

Jet lag is commonly understood to be caused by a desynchronisation (a moving apart) of the body’s circadian rhythm and local zeitgebers (from the German ‘zeit’ meaning ‘time’ and ‘geber’ meaning ‘giver’, so literally timegivers) including light, temperature, atmospheric conditions, exercise and more. Recovery from jet lag involves realigning the body with these zeitgebers in a process called ‘entrainment’.

What causes jet lag?

According to the NHS, jet lag is ‘a range of symptoms experienced while adapting to a different light-dark schedule following a flight to a new time zone.’

There are 24 different time zones in the world and once you cross them, your body’s 24-hour clock is disrupted. This disrupts your daily circadian rhythms, such as sleeping and waking, your appetite and even your bowel habits.

In basic terms, jet lag is when your body clock struggles to match up with the time zone of your destination. Symptoms usually include insomnia, daytime drowsiness, difficulty concentrating and mood swings. Such symptoms usually occur for the first day or two after you travel. They also tend to be worse the further away you go.

What are the symptoms of jet lag?

While the severity and the number of symptoms suffered differ depending on the person, the number of time zones crossed and even the direction of travel, they include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Irritability

How to treat jetlag:

While it isn’t possible to prevent jet lag, there are a few ways you can reduce its tiring effects:

1. Prepare your body:

Preparing for jet lag before the flight is important. Try to adjust your body clock by slowly changing your sleep pattern. For example, if you’re travelling east, start waking up earlier and going to bed earlier than you usually would, so the difference does not shock your body. If you’re travelling west, go to bed and get up a little later. Taking place prior to departure, rescheduling sleep to bring your body into closer alignment with destination time can help to reduce the impact of jet lag upon arrival.

2. Avoid napping

As much as you’d like a quick nap as soon as you land, it’s best to stay awake until it’s night-time in your new destination. For this reason, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that you select a flight that arrives early evening and stay up until 10 pm local time. While it may be difficult to stay awake, it will help your body to adjust quicker. If you’re struggling to stay awake throughout the day, have a coffee. If it’s still difficult, allow yourself a nap of no more than two hours, so you’ll be able to sleep later. To avoid oversleeping, ensure you set the alarm.

3. Embrace only the right kinds of light

This can vary between scheduling arrival times and light exposure at the destination to technological interventions such as battery-powered glasses which deliver light during a flight in order to inhibit melatonin production and cushion the impact of the journey. If you’re flying at night and want to sleep, avoid screens and read a book or listen to a podcast instead.

4. Choose your plane seat wisely

While first class seating often provides the luxury and home comforts of a big armchair and quiet space, you’d probably triple the cost of your whole holiday just for the pleasure. Instead, let’s look at where is best to sleep across the whole seating plan:

  • Avoid high traffic areas such as the galleys or lavatories.
  • Make sure your seat reclines, many in the exit rows do not.
  • Avoid the back of the plane. When you hit turbulence, the back will feel it the most.

Check out SeatGuru to see the seat configuration of the next plane you’ll be taking. Once you’ve chosen your seat, there are a couple of measures you can take to ensure you get some down time and avoid jet lag:

  • Switch off the entertainment: the blue light will trick your body into thinking it needs to stay awake.
  • Avoid alcohol: yes it’s nice to have a holiday drink at 30,000 feet, but at that altitude, it’ll dehydrate your body and ruin your circadian rhythm.
  • Avoid caffeine: it stays active in your system for up to 8 hours, so could disrupt your entire flight!

You may think all this will take all the fun out of flying, but your body will really thank you when you land refreshed and lower your risk of suffering from any jet lag.

5. Live like a local

On top of this, it’s recommended that you adjust your other habits to the time zone of your new destination. This means eating at the correct times of the country you’re in and avoiding sticking to the times you would back at home.

6. Get outdoors:

Get outdoors in the daytime before and after your flight to help increase your melatonin production. When you land, there might be some confusion for your body clock. Spending time in natural daylight helps your body to adjust to its new time zone. This is because your body is synchronised to natural daylight. When it gets dark, your body produces melatonin to help you sleep, but around dawn, this melatonin production stops.

While each of these treatments in isolation is thought to offer some reduction in the duration of jet lag, the best solution is likely to be a mixture of several. One meta-analysis of jet lag studies concludes the following:

Long-haul flights over several time zones cause both travel fatigue and jet lag. The most obvious consequences of jet lag are poor sleep at night, excessive sleepiness during the day, and poor mental and physical performance. These consequences occur because the human circadian system cannot immediately adapt to time cues in a new time zone. This manuscript has presented recommendations on how to minimise jet lag using judiciously timed light exposure/avoidance and ingestion of melatonin to help adapt your circadian system to a new time zone.

Direction of travel and jet lag

One of the more peculiar aspects of jet lag is that severity tends to differ between direction of travel, with adjustment to new time zones generally quicker for east-west travel than vice versa. However, this is explained by the relative difficulty of extending a day versus shortening it. With most humans, the length of the internal circadian rhythm is 24+ hours, making it less effective to remain awake for longer to begin matching the destination time.

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