Whether you’re headed to a destination wedding in the Caribbean, or are finally getting the chance to explore the Mayan ancient ruins—it’s safe to say that any traveling opportunity is a real treat.
However, while air travel definitely makes things more convenient, jet lag can manage to tag along on your adventures—especially if you are about to travel across time zones, and the time at your destination is hours ahead of your local time zone.
No one wants to spend their vacation snoozing away in the hotel room—not when there are scenic landmarks to explore, sun to soak, and delicious local food to eat!
That’s why, before you pack for that summer (or fall or winter or spring) getaway, it’s worth taking the time to learn the ins-and-outs of jet lag—specifically how it affects your body and how to prevent it.
Plus, if you prefer to hear from experts themselves, don’t worry! We also tapped a professional psychologist (who also is a sleep educator) to share both her insight and amazing jet lag-busting tips.
What is Jet Lag?
The first common misconception you’ll often hear is that jet lag isn’t real. However, it is actually a physiological condition recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jet lag is caused by a mismatch of a person’s daily circadian rhythms and a new time zone (or the local time at your destination), and can occur if you travel across three, or a number of time zones, says the CDC. This mismatch causes the disruption in sleep that we call jet lag.
Jet lag can affect people in all age groups. However, a 2011 article published in Pharmacy and Therapeutics states that it has a more pronounced effect (namely, a longer recovery time) on the elderly.
This circadian rhythm disruption isn’t always caused by travel. Work and irregularity at bedtime (plus waking up time) can also disrupt your body’s internal clock, according to New Zealand-based psychotherapist and sleep coach Carla Piccoli.
“This inconsistency in bedtime and waking time during the week (and weekend), is known as social jet lag,” Piccoli tells SleepMoment. “Of course, social jet lag has a minor impact on the quality of our sleep (and health) compared to traveling across time zones. However, both are equally bad for our health and sleep.”
Basically, jet lag and social jet lag, along with other circadian rhythm sleep disorders, happen when a person’s sleep-wake cycle is offset from their natural sleep-wake cycle due to their environment or lifestyle habits.
The Science Behind Jet Lag
Now that you have a better understanding of what jet lag is, you may be wondering exactly what causes jet lag.
Picolli says, “Jet lag stems from a disruption in our body clock (aka circadian rhythm) —which regulates all biochemical, physiological, and behavioral processes inside the body. Additionally, jet lag affects the two groups of neurons that control our deep sleep and REM sleep, which are the most restorative types of sleep.”
When traveling across the globe, our body clock becomes out of sync once we go through daylight and darkness cycles that are different from the rhythms we are used to, Piccoli explains. “The same effect happens (of course, in less intensity) when it’s daylight savings time, and we lose an hour of our day.”
There are several factors that influence jet lag. Light exposure, for example, plays a key role. “Sunlight and fresh air positively impacts our melatonin (a sleep hormone that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep at night) production,” Piccoli adds. “Artificial light from the plane’s cabin (or from electronic devices) will reduce your melatonin production.”
Other factors that can contribute to jet lag symptoms are changes in cabin pressure, high altitudes, and low humidity— all which can leave you slightly dehydrated, Piccoli warns.
Signs and Symptoms: How Jet Lag Affects Your Body
Symptoms of jet lag vary from person to person, but there are some commonalities that you’ll recognize as telltale signs of jet lag:
- Daytime fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping at night
- Trouble concentrating
- Mood swings
- Stomach problems
Duration of symptoms also varies, as Piccoli tells SleepMoment that “the symptoms of jet lag can last a few days to two weeks.” This all, of course, depends on a number of factors that can worsen the effects of jet lag, including:
- Direction of travel: Those flying east tend to experience more severe, longer-lasting symptoms than those who travel west, which experts believe is because your body can adapt more quickly to staying up late than turning in early.
- Number of time zones crossed: Jet lag symptoms worsen the farther you travel. A general rule of thumb is that it takes about one day to recover for each time zone crossed.
- Arrival and departure times: There’s some evidence that arriving in the afternoon is generally easier on travelers than arriving in the early morning. This makes sense as arriving in the morning means that you’re more likely to crash halfway through the day (further throwing off your sleep schedule).
- Psychological factors: Long lines at the airport, flight anxiety, and logistical issues are all stressful enough to make many people feel like they need a vacation from their vacation. The heightened anxiety could make for a few restless nights.
- Age: As with most things, it takes longer for older people to recover from jet lag than it does for younger travelers.
Everyone experiences jet lag differently, so there’s no way to accurately predict how severe your jet lag will be. Some are ready to hop out of the plane and start exploring. Others may feel dead on their feet and ready to hit the hotel.
If you’ve had jet lag before, chances are, you’ll probably have it again.
No matter your situation, there are ways to reduce the effects of jet lag so you can get back to enjoying your vacation.
How to Prevent or Reduce Jet Lag
Reducing jet lag is all about preparation, according to Piccoli, as she says “when we’re prepared, things are sure to flow more smoothly.”
To prevent or reduce the severity of your jet lag symptoms, below are some of her vacation-saving tips to keep in mind—before you start packing for the big trip.
Get Some Sunlight
Natural light can work wonders for regulating your circadian rhythm. “The best way to adjust your body to a new time zone is to get outside in the sunlight (preferably at noon when the sun is stronger) whenever possible,” says Piccoli. “Daylight is a powerful stimulant for regulating the biological clock.”
Avoid Red-Eye Flights
It’s easy to assume that a night flight will save time. After all, you can just sleep on the plane, right? However, Piccoli explains that “it’s very hard to sleep in an uncomfortable chair, with the lights on, and people constantly walking back and forth.”
To avoid this, she advises “selecting a flight that allows early evening arrival. And upon boarding the plane be sure to change your watch to the destination time zone.”
Cut the Alcohol
Yes, it can be tempting to indulge in a few glasses of wine on your flight (especially if flying makes you nervous).
At the same time, Picolli advises cutting out the alcohol at least two hours before you’ll want to go to bed—otherwise it will interfere with the quality of your sleep. “Likewise, try not to guzzle large amounts of caffeine to try to stay awake,” she adds. “This, too, will make it harder for you to fall asleep when you are ready for bed.”
Approach Sleep Medication With Caution
“Natural sleep aids such as melatonin (1.5 to 3 mg) can be helpful for the first night or two upon arrival or return—especially if you are getting stressed out about potential sleep disruptions,” Picolli explains. “However, it’s best to exert caution with sleep aids—these medications have side effects and can affect your sleep cycles.”
Shifting cabin pressure, high altitudes, and low humidity make for the perfect storm of dehydration, and with dehydration comes headaches, nausea, and fatigue. That’s why it’s important to drink plenty of water, even before your feet leave the ground. Picolli advises increasing your liquid intake for about 24 to 48 hours ahead of departure to ensure you are adequately hydrated.
While traveling across the globe is exciting, keep in mind that jet lag can tag along on any kind of jet-setting adventure.
Luckily, jet lag can be managed with a little forethought and preparation. Try to plan your travel around the optimal arrival and departure times, and resist the urge to take an afternoon snooze once you’ve reached your destination.
With your jet lag conquered, you’ll be ready to hike the trails, surf the waves—or just chill by the pool if that’s what you prefer.