Jet Lag: How To Avoid It And How To Get Over It

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There’s no denying that jet lag is one of the worst parts of travelling.

Whether you have to travel often to deal with important business matters, or you simply want to relax and enjoy a nice vacation, jet lag may be holding you back from performing at your best.

how long does jet lag last

Let’s take a look at the exact jet lag definition, how long it lasts, and how to quickly overcome it.

With this knowledge, you can hopefully – finally – enjoy yourself on your travels with less delay.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag (also referred to as desynchronosis, flight fatigue, and time zone change syndrome) is a condition that results from your body’s circadian rhythm being thrown off.

This happens due to travelling rapidly across time zones or when your sleep becomes consistently disrupted.

A circadian rhythm sleep disorder can cause fatigue, insomnia, and a variety of other symptoms that will impact your day-to-day functions, and may even ruin your trip altogether.

Luckily, it is also a temporary disorder that will be fixed once your body learns to readjust its circadian rhythm or its internal body clock.

Circadian rhythms are basically 24-hour cycles our bodies’ biochemical, physiological, and behavioral processes go through in order to keep us functioning.

These cycles regulate your energy levels and simple daily activities like your sleeping times, waking times, times you feel most active, times you feel hungry, and your body temperature.

Your body’s clock follows your own personal cycles rigidly, but it can also be affected by environmental factors like the day and night cycles of your time zone.

jet lag

Suddenly traveling across different time zones – and dealing with daylight and darkness cycles that are different from the rhythms you are used to – can confuse your body’s internal clock, resulting in the exhausting experience that is jet lag.

A Quick Note on Travel Fatigue

Travel fatigue is a general fatigue disorder characterized by disorientation or a headache, which is typically caused by a sudden disruption in your normal routine.

This is especially true if you mostly spend your time in a low-oxygen environment, a cramped space with little chance to move around, or if you limit healthy food and drink intake.

While it may share a few symptoms with jet lag, travel fatigue can develop without a person crossing any time zones and does not affect your circadian rhythms as adversely as jet lag does.

This fatigue often disappears after you get at least one night of good-quality sleep.

Jet Lag Symptoms

There are a variety of different physical and emotional symptoms of jet lag.

Please keep in mind that the more time zones you cross in a short period, the more severe these symptoms will be and the longer they will last.

These symptoms also tend to be worse when you travel eastward compared to westward destinations.

jet lag mask

Physical Symptoms

The most telling sign that you are suffering from jet lag is the fact that you feel drowsy, tired, irritable, lethargic, and/or slightly disoriented at being in a new time zone.

You may also find that you suffer from acute sleeping disorders such as insomnia, or that you wake up too early or feel sleepy during the day.

This can then cause you to have trouble concentrating or functioning like normal. As such, you feel generally unwell, irritable, more susceptible to mood swings, or even have some memory problems.

You may also suffer from stomach problems – such as constipation, diarrhea, or indigestion – as well as dehydration, headaches, nausea, excess sweating, and dizziness. More alarming symptoms some individuals have reported include heartbeat irregularities and increased susceptibility to illness.

Older people tend to be more severely affected by jet lag than small children or babies, though children may also suffer from mild symptoms as they travel along with you.

Fortunately, children and babies also recover much faster as well, so you do not need to worry that much about their health.

Emotional Symptoms

Those who suffer from jet lag tend to become anxious or depressed. This is because a lack of quality sleep can exacerbate existing mental illness or cause an otherwise neurotypical person to feel a lot worse than they already do.

Usually, you do not need to be diagnosed with jet lag. If you have traveled across several time zones and feel any of the above symptoms, you most likely have it.

However, if your symptoms of jet lag don’t go away after a few days of rest, you should definitely see your doctor when you return home.

This video goes into more details on jet lag.

How Long Does Jet Lag Last?

Hormone regulation is the key to properly synchronizing your body’s internal clock to the time zone you are currently in. However, jet lag can throw your hormones off that sync.

Unfortunately, you can’t do all that much about your symptoms until your hormone levels eventually reset to your new environment. This can take any number of days and will depend on how many time zones you have crossed, as well as what direction you have crossed into.

Jet lag symptoms usually set in within a day or two of travelling if you’ve traveled across at least two time zones. For each time zone you cross, it will take at least one additional day for your body to adjust to the new time zone.

For example, if you fly from San Francisco to Rome for a 10-day trip, it may take you anywhere between six to nine days to fully recover.

Of course, west-to-east travel takes a bigger physical toll on you, as you are essentially skipping ahead in time (compared to your time zone’s current hour).

Using the same San Francisco-Rome trip example again, but this time travelling from east to west, your jet lag symptoms could last some four to five days before you fully recover again.

Any serious medical complications caused by jet lag are extremely rare. If you have a preexisting heart condition, however, the stress caused by the abrupt change of your circadian rhythm – combined with the stress of travel and high altitudes during flight – could result in a heart attack if you are not careful.

How to Avoid Jet Lag

Jet lag cannot be avoided completely, but there are some things you can do to make your symptoms less severe.

Resetting Your Body Clock Beforehand

You should try to reset your internal body clock to the time zone you will be staying in a few days before your flight actually leaves.

This means sleeping and waking up at times you normally wouldn’t, just as you would after arriving at your destination.

how to get over jet lag

If you are flying east, you should go to sleep a couple of hours earlier and wake up earlier than usual. If you’re heading west, you should stay up an extra hour or two and wake up later, too.

If you find that you don’t have the time to practice this at home, you can always start adjusting your body’s clock on the plane. Just set your watch or smartphone to your destination’s local time and keep yourself awake if it is still daytime over there.

However, if you are leaving in the dead of night, take advantage of the darkness to get some much-needed sleep before your trip. That way, you will be fully rested by the time you reach your destination.

If you are traveling east, however, you should just sleep on the plane until you arrive. If you don’t fly first class or business, then try asking the steward or stewardess if there are any free seats or rows left once everyone has boarded, but prior to the plane leaving the airport.

If you have the chance to relocate to an entirely empty row, then you can lie down completely horizontal and thus have an easier time getting those crucial hours of sleep.

You can even ask the steward or stewardess for some extra pillows, earplugs, or an eye mask to help you sleep better on the plane. It isn’t the fanciest option, but it will work just fine.

When it comes to traveling west, however, make sure you stay awake throughout most of the flight.

Consider Arrival Times

Morning arrivals tend to make you feel exhausted. It then seems as if the day is just dragging on.

Afternoon or evening arrival times tend to be easier transitions, as you only have to stay awake for a few hours before catching up on some much-needed sleep.

Avoiding Certain Foods

Though it might appear strange, the food you eat before or during your flight can often have an impact on your jet lag symptoms.

For example, carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, potatoes, rice, and even rest stop burgers can make you feel very full, and thus, very tired.

This may be a good thing if you have an eastbound flight, but if you are heading west, you should eat lighter, more protein-rich food to help you stay awake.

Light portions of meat, fish, or eggs will fill you up, but not enough to make you sleepy. Your body can then use that energy to stay awake during your flight.

what is jet lag

Other Things to Avoid

There are some things you should avoid when trying to keep yourself awake on your flight.

Spending too much time sitting down in an uncomfortable chair can make you tired or cranky. As such, try to move around the plane every once and a while to get your blood pumping.

You should also avoid drinking any caffeine or alcohol because they can be really dehydrating. This will cause you to look and feel even more exhausted.

How to Get Over Jet Lag

Sunglasses

A study conducted by the Edinburgh Sleep Centre for British Airways found that wearing sunglasses during at least part of your flight may help your body adjust to the new time zone by adjusting to its lighting patterns.

Melatonin

There have also been several studies completed on the role that melatonin and other hormones play in humans’ circadian rhythm cycles.

Melatonin is the hormone that makes you sleep at night, so it’s a key player in dealing with any sleep disorders caused by an out-of-sync body clock.

You could take a small dose of melatonin between 0.3 milligrams to 5 milligrams on the first night you need to sleep at your destination and for a few days after if you really need it.

It seems to be the most potent when you have to cross five or more time zones, or when you are traveling east.

However, keep in mind that melatonin doses should only be taken by adults. If you are planning to bring your children along with you on vacation, just know that they have to deal with jet lag for a few days.

You should also consult your doctor before taking melatonin as a sleep aid, just to be on the safe side.

Sleeping Pills

Prescription or over-the-counter sleeping pills may also help reset your body’s clock to your destination’s time zone.

Prescription sleeping pills should only be taken if you really need them, and then only for two to three nights. Try not to take it for longer than that, as these medications can become addictive.

Jet Lag Mask

A jet lag mask does sound like a strange idea, but make-up and beauty experts swear by its effectiveness.

Your skin tends to get more dehydrated on planes and will need some extra moisturizing once you land.

While applying this mask after the fact might not wake you up all that much, you will at least look as if you are ready for the day ahead. Sometimes, that’s all it takes for you to feel confident (and slightly more awake) again.

This video goes into more detail on how to beat jet lag.

Conclusion

Jet lag can be a real pain to deal with, but that doesn’t mean you should let it stop you from enjoying your trip!

If you understand what it is, as well as practice the methods above to combat it before, during, and after your trip ends, you are sure to have a great time abroad!


What is your best way to get over jet lag?

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