Definition

What is jet lag?

Jet lag, also called jet lag disorder, is a temporary sleep problem that can affect anyone who quickly travels across multiple time zones.

Your body has its own internal clock, or circadian rhythms, that signals your body when to stay awake and when to sleep. Jet lag occurs because your body’s clock is still synced to your original time zone, instead of to the time zone where you’ve traveled. The more time zones crossed, the more likely you are to experience jet lag.

Jet lag can cause daytime fatigue, an unwell feeling, difficulty staying alert and gastrointestinal problems. Jet lag is temporary, but it can significantly reduce your vacation or business travel comfort. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help prevent or minimize jet lag.

How common is jet lag?

Jet lag is extremely common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of jet lag?

The common symptoms of jet lag are:

  • Disturbed sleep — such as insomnia, early waking or excessive sleepiness
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating or functioning at your usual level
  • Stomach problems, constipation or diarrhea
  • A general feeling of not being well
  • Mood changes

Symptoms of jet lag can vary. You may experience only one symptom or you may have many.

Jet lag symptoms usually occur within a day or two of travel if you’ve traveled across at least two time zones. Symptoms are likely to be worse or last longer the more time zones that you’ve crossed, especially if you travel in an easterly direction. It usually takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes jet lag?

The cause of jet lag is the inability of the body of a traveler to immediately adjust to the time in a different zone. Thus, when a New Yorker arrives in Paris at midnight Paris time, his or her body continues to operate on New York time. As the body struggles to cope with the new schedule, temporary insomnia, fatigue, irritability, and an impaired ability to concentrate may set in. The changed bathroom schedule may cause constipation or diarrhea, and the brain may become confused and disoriented as it attempts to juggle schedules.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for jet lag?

There are many risk factors for jet lag, such as:

  • Number of time zones crossed. The more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to be jet-lagged.
  • Flying east. You may find it harder to fly east, when you “lose” time, than to fly west, when you gain it back.
  • Being a frequent flyer. Pilots, flight attendants and business travelers are most likely to experience jet lag.
  • Being an older adult. Older adults may need more time to recover from jet lag than do younger adults.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is jet lag diagnosed?

Typically, the patient’s primary care doctor will evaluate any symptoms that could be related to jet lag. In rare situations, if the symptoms are severe and frequent enough, the doctor will recommend for the patient to see a sleep specialist.

How is jet lag treated?

Jet lag is generally temporary and usually doesn’t need treatment. Symptoms often improve within a few days, though they sometimes last longer.

However, if you’re a frequent traveler continually bothered by jet lag, your doctor may prescribe medications or light therapy.

Medications

  • Nonbenzodiazepines, such as zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zaleplon (Sonata)
  • Benzodiazepines, such as triazolam (Halcion)

These medications — sometimes called sleeping pills — may help you sleep during your flight and for several nights afterward. Side effects are uncommon, but may include nausea, vomiting, amnesia, sleepwalking, confusion and morning sleepiness.

Although these medications appear to help sleep duration and quality, they may not lessen daytime symptoms of jet lag. These medications are usually only recommended for people who haven’t been helped by other treatments.

Light therapy

Your body’s internal clock or circadian rhythms are influenced by exposure to sunlight, among other factors. When you travel across time zones, your body must adjust to a new daylight schedule and reset, allowing you to fall asleep and be awake at the appropriate times.

Light therapy can help ease that transition. It involves exposing your eyes to an artificial bright light or lamp that simulates sunlight for a specific and regular amount of time during the time when you’re meant to be awake.

This may be useful, for example, if you’re a business traveler and are often away from natural sunlight during the day in a new time zone. Light therapy comes in a variety of forms including a light box that sits on a table, a desk lamp that may blend in better in an office setting or a light visor that you wear on your head.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage jet lag?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you avoid jet lag:

  • Arrive early. If you have an important meeting or other event that requires you to be in top form, try to arrive a few days early to give your body a chance to adjust.
  • Get plenty of rest before your trip. Starting out sleep-deprived makes jet lag worse.
  • Gradually adjust your schedule before you leave. If you’re traveling east, try going to bed one hour earlier each night for a few days before your departure. Go to bed one hour later for several nights if you’re flying west. If possible, eat meals closer to the time you’ll be eating them at your destination.
  • Regulate bright light exposure. Because light exposure is one of the prime influences on your body’s circadian rhythm, regulating light exposure may help you adjust to your new location. In general, exposure to light in the evening helps you adjust to a later than usual time zone (traveling westward), while exposure to morning light can help you adapt to an earlier time zone faster (traveling eastward). The one exception is if you have traveled more than eight time zones from your original time zone, because exposure to light in the early morning could be mistaken by your body as dusk. Conversely, evening light might be interpreted as dawn. So, if you’ve traveled more than eight time zones to the east, wear sunglasses and avoid bright light in the morning, and then allow as much sunlight as possible in the late afternoon for the first few days in your new location. If you have traveled west by more than eight time zones, avoid sunlight a few hours before dark for the first few days to adjust to the local time.
  • Stay on your new schedule. Set your watch to the new time before you leave. Once you reach your destination, try not to sleep until the local nighttime, no matter how tired you are. Try to time your meals with local mealtimes too.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during and after your flight to counteract the dehydrating effects of dry cabin air. Dehydration can make jet lag symptoms worse. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as these can dehydrate you and affect your sleep.
  • Try to sleep on the plane if it’s nighttime at your destination. Earplugs, headphones and eye masks can help block out noise and light. If it’s daytime where you’re going, resist the urge to sleep.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: November 20, 2017 | Last Modified: November 20, 2017

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