A Complete Guide to Understanding Jet Lag

No matter how frequently you fly, you're not immune to the physical and psychological effects of jet lag. Whether you're flying across the country or across the world, the time zone changes and time spent in the air can take a toll, adding to the exhaustion of traveling.

What is Jet Lag, and Why Does it Happen?

Jet lag refers to the physical effects of a long flight and the difficulty of acclimating to a new time zone. What causes the symptoms and feeling of jet lag?

Traveling across more than one time zone in a relatively short period of time can disrupt your circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycles—such as the sleep-wake cycle—controlled by your biological clock. When this rhythm falls out of sync, it often causes fatigue.

Though recuperation time varies from person to person, it generally takes one day to recover per hour difference in time zones from where you left and where you landed.

During this period, your body will readjust its circadian rhythms, including the regulation of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.

Common Jet Lag Symptoms and Side Effects

While people experience jet lag symptoms differently, most people report a combination of the following side effects. 

  • Difficulties Falling Asleep– Jet lag makes it challenging to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up at a reasonable time.
  • Day-time Drowsiness– Jet lag can make one feel heavy-eyed and fatigued even during the day.
  • Irritability– Jet lag tends to make people feel emotional and irritable. Research shows that it may even cause depressive episodes.
  • Cognitive Impairment– After a long flight, you may have difficulty concentrating or remembering. This side effect is similar to symptoms of sleep deprivation. 
  • Digestive Issues– Jet lag can cause gastrointestinal problems such as a lack of appetite, nausea, constipation, and irritable bowels.

Jet Lag Risk Factors

Jet lag symptoms and their severity often vary from person to person. The following conditions may influence how long and how intensely you feel the side effects.

  • Traveling Across Three or More Time Zones– Many people quickly adapt to a one-or two-time zone transition. Three or more can result in more pronounced jet lag symptoms.
  • Flying Eastward– Traveling to the eastern hemisphere causes travelers to dawdle along time, making the transition more difficult.
  • Age– Older adults often take longer to recover from jet lag. 
  • Pre-existing Conditions– Insomnia, sleep deprivation, fatigue, and poor sleep hygiene can aggravate jet lag symptoms.
  • Flight Conditions– You may experience heightened jet lag symptoms depending on immobility and cramped seating, airline food, speed, and cabin pressure.
  • Alcohol Intake– Drinking too much on long flights often exacerbates the symptoms of jet lag.

Jet Lag Logistics

Jet lag can throw off even the most experienced travelers and frequent flyers. However, you can take action to prevent, reduce, or alleviate the symptoms. The next time you fly across multiple time zones, you should develop a game-plan before boarding.

Adjusting to Time Zone Changes

Adjusting to a new time zone requires both physical and mental recuperation strategies. To realign your circadian rhythms with the time zone of your destination, you can: 

  • Rest up the night before your return flight.
  • Get plenty of exposure to natural light within the first couple of days of your return.
  • Resist the urge to "sleep off" the trip during daylight hours. Even if you're tired, try to wait for your local bedtime to hit the hay.
  • Especially with transcontinental travel, adjust to the time change gradually by moving your bedtime by just an hour or two each night after your arrival.

Getting Sleep on the Plane

Unless one selects a business-class or first-class seat on the plane, it gets uncomfortable adjusting to a comfortable sleeping position. However, there are specific tips that one might find helpful when trying to manage sleep in flight.

Finding the right in-flight sleeping position is essential. Travelers can opt to stretch out on the adjacent seats if they are empty. They can also pile any sweater or scarf on the tray table and rest their head on it for some comfort. 

One can try to get a window seat as it provides passengers with comfortable head support. It might help in getting some quality sleep and reduce the impact of jet lag.

The Wonders and Challenges of Time Travel  

The best way to overcome jet lag is by understanding how long flights affect the body. Think about it—being able to travel across the world within hours as opposed to days is a technological wonder. It makes sense that the human body needs time to adjust to such dramatic change and stimulation.

The next time you travel, be patient with yourself and listen to your body's needs. If you take action to realign your circadian rhythms with the local time, the side effects of jet lag will dissipate within a few short days.