How to Stop Jet Lag Messing With Your Sleep
7 min read
Last Modified 20 October 2021 First Added 18 July 2017
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.
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’.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.