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Healthy Sleep

5 min read

jet lag - what it is and how to conquer it

written by Liz Tabron

updated 05.08.2022

woman with jet lag

For many of us, it’s been over two years since we could enjoy a much needed holiday abroad and it’s a great feeling knowing that we’re now free to travel the world once again, despite all the recent airport chaos. But for those embarking on a long-haul journey, comes the misery of jet-lag. Jet lag is truly the worst - it cuts into your holiday time, demotivates you and makes you feel sluggish. Read on to find out what exactly jet lag is and what the symptoms are, plus we share some top tips that will help soften the impact of travelling through multiple time zones, so you can quickly get back to your functioning self.

what is jet lag?

Jet lag is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder and occurs when you travel across two or more time zones within a relatively short period of time, throwing your body clock out of sync with the daytime-nighttime schedule of your destination. Travelling against your internal body clock leads to a disruption in your sleep pattern, causing fatigue, affecting concentration and can lead to you feeling unwell in general. 

In normal circumstances, your circadian rhythm aligns with daylight, which promotes alertness during the day and sleep when it comes to nighttime. Your internal body clock synchronises with the 24 hour day, aiding quality sleep and helping to ensure good physical and mental health too. So when you travel to a new location with different sunrise and sunset times than what you’re used to, it leads to a disruption in your circadian rhythm.

Aspects of air travel can make you feel even more unwell, including sitting on a plane for long periods of time, lack of oxygen and decreased air pressure in the cabin, as well as warm cabin temperatures and low humidity, which can lead to dehydration - while not causing jet lag, it can enhance your tiredness. Furthermore, jet lag is also worse when travelling from west to east, but more on that later.

The body can adjust naturally to 1-1.5 changes in time zones each day, and so the more time zones you travel through within a short space of time, the more severe the jet lag symptoms you’ll experience.

jet lag - the symptoms

Jet lag is one of the most difficult side effects of long-haul travel, causing a whole array of symptoms that can take a few days to ease after arriving at your destination.

Symptoms of jet lag include:

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Issues with waking in the morning

  • A feeling of fatigue

  • Feeling drowsy during the day time

  • Poor sleep quality

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Reduced mental and physical performance

  • Gastrointestinal changes

  • Nausea

  • Dizziness

  • Changes in appetite

  • Mild anxiety

how long does it take to recover from jet lag?

How long it takes to recover from jet lag all depends upon how many time zones you’ve travelled across, as well as your body’s unique rhythms and overall health. You should allow a day, for each time zone crossed, for your body to adjust to the local time.

If you’ve lost several hours during travel, you’ll most likely have difficulty falling asleep as you adjust to a new nighttime schedule, but if you’ve gained several hours, you will feel sleepy during the daytime. A lot of people feel back to their usual self after a few days, but for others it can take a week. 

why west is best and east is a beast 

For jeg lag to occur, travel must happen in an east-west or west-east direction. However, when you travel in an easterly direction, jet lag symptoms can feel more intense - this is because your body has less time to recover. Travelling west adds hours to a day, giving you more recovery time, whilst travelling east reduces the hours in a day and so you have less time to catch up with sleep, intensifying symptoms and delaying recovery. Also, your body will find it easier if you are forcing it to stay awake but will struggle if you are forcing yourself to go to sleep too early.

how to soften the impact of jet lag

Although it’s hard to completely avoid jet lag, there are some ways that you can soften the impact to help you get back to your normal self. It’s pretty much all down to reconditioning your body to acclimate to your new time zone as quickly as possible, but without over-stressing it. Follow our top tips to help minimise the effects of jet lag:

  1. Prepare in advance - making an effort to lessen the impact of jet lag can start way before you board the plane. Try to adjust your schedule by moving your fall-asleep and wake-up times, in 15 minute increments each day, towards the time-zone of your destination.

  2. Limit alcohol and caffeine intake before and during your flight - alcohol and caffeine worsen jet lag symptoms, negatively impacting sleep quality - remember the half life of alcohol in the body is 5 hours so consider the time zone you are landing in and what time you will be going to sleep there. Avoid heavy meals too, as they can raise your core body temperature, making falling asleep on time more difficult if consumed too close to bed time. 

  3. Adjust your sleep-wake schedule - try to get into a time and sleep routine that’s appropriate for the destination as soon as you can after arriving. This may mean sleeping on the plane if you’re taking a flight during your destination’s night time.

  4. Keep moving - try to keep active during your journey by stretching and exercising. Exercising after travelling can also help you to feel more alert. You should also consider the time you will need to go to sleep in your new time zone and avoid exercise too close to bed time as exercise will raise your core body temperature making sleep more difficult to achieve. 

  5. Take a power nap on arrival - but only if you really need to and make sure it’s for no longer than 20 minutes. 

  6. Spend time outdoors - getting outside during daylight hours improves alertness and light helps your body to recognise that it’s time to be awake. You should seek bright light in the evening if you have travelled westward, but if you’ve gone east, seek bright light in the morning.

  7. Reset your body clock - Setting your sleep and wake times to the local time zone, avoiding sleeping too much during the day on arrival, and getting outside in the daylight all contribute to setting your internal clock to the local time and overcoming jet lag. Eating at local meal times also gives a strong signal to reset your circadian rhythm. 

In summary, disrupting your circadian rhythm is what leads to jet lag symptoms and preparation and setting your schedule to  suit the time zone you’ve travelled to really will go a long way to help reset your body clock, so you can quickly get back to feeling like you again. 

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