If you’ve ever jumped on a plane to go across the country, or perhaps across the world, you’ve likely suffered from jet lag. The condition is actually one of the most common sleep disorders, affecting millions of people every year, according the National Sleep Foundation.
For some of us, it’s an exotic getaway to a faraway beach, interrupted by sleepiness and exhaustion. You find yourself passed out in a hotel room missing the best part of the day. For others, it’s a work-related trip that results in dozing off during meetings before you bounce back to normal.
Jet lag symptoms can include serious headaches, diarrhea, constipation, sleepiness and even confusion. Some people say it feels a lot like a hangover, which no one enjoys.
Research has shown frequent jet travel has long term health risks, so it’s important to use the strategies below to curb the negative risks associated with frequent trips across multiple time zones.
What Exactly is Jet Lag?
It is a temporary disorder that causes fatigue, insomnia, and other symptoms as a result of air travel across time zones. Jet lag occurs when your body’s biological clock is not properly aligned with the time zone you are in, according to the National Institute of Health. It is considered a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, and is also sometimes called flight fatigue or jet syndrome. A more formal scientific name for it is desynchronosis.
A common misconception is that any flight, regardless of the miles flown, can cause jet lag. That is not the case. For example, travelers in the same time zone heading from north to south are much less susceptible than those on shorter flights going across time zones, according to the American Sleep Association (ASA).
How Long Does the Sleep Disorder Last?
The body can take about one day per time zone that is crossed to fully recover and adjust to the changes, according to the ASA.
The world is divided into 24 time zones. The more time zones you pass through flying, the worse your jet lag can be. For example, if you are traveling east from New York to Greece, the time difference is 7 hours, you’re most likely to be affected by jet lag symptoms for about a week, which could be most of your precious vacation time. From California to New York, you may only experience symptoms for 3 days because of the shorter trip. Less time zones.
Also, research has shown traveling east has worse jet lag than when you fly West. Why is not fully understood, but researchers believe the reason may be because people are better at processing the idea of having more hours in a travel day then when feels like time has vanished in thin air while flying. I think a lot of us have wished at some point that there were more hours in a day- especially on vacation.
What Can Make Jet Lag Symptoms Worse?
Caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine and alcohol dehydrates the body, which exacerbates jet lag symptoms.
Stressing out or being too excited: Traveling to a work conference? Just relax! Being too stressed or excited about a trip can hamper your ability to sleep properly. The inability to sleep well due to anxiety or excitement is common when you are sleeping in a new or unfamiliar environment.
Does Jet Lag Affect Everyone?
The answer is yes, everyone. The extent of which the sleep disorder affects a person can vary. For example, adults who can adjust to changes of routine seem less susceptible to jet lag. Those who are ritualistic about keeping a routine are usually hit the hardest. Research suggests the ability to sleep at abnormal times decreases with age, especially with older people that are over 60. Also, many studies done on jet lag show that women are at a higher risk than men due to estrogen, according to the American Sleep Association.
There are some things you can do before, during, and after your flight to help minimize the impact of jet lag. Here is the breakdown:
WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOU FLY
- When booking flights going abroad, a planned stopover can help you gradually adjust to a new time zone.
- Change your sleep routine based on where you are traveling. Going west? Go to bed later a couple days before. Going east? Start going to bed earlier for a few days before.
- Be a travel rockstar and wear sunglasses. Our circadian rhythm is affected by our eyes detecting light. Wearing shades earlier in the afternoon if you’re heading east can help make it easier to fall asleep earlier. Wearing sunglasses in the bright hours of the morning can help your body adjust if you’re heading west.
- Make the day of travel seamless. For example, check into your flight early, online. Be packed the day before you travel. Be sure you have all the necessary documents to travel with, and have a sound plan on how to get to the airport.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol for four hours before bedtime the day before your flight.
- There is also such thing as an anti-jet lag diet that asks you to alternate days of feasting with days of very light eating, four days before your trip. A 2002 study found those who used the diet were 7.5x less likely to feel jet lagged after flying from the US to Korea. In more recent years, a team at Harvard has said a anti-jet lag fast, in which you simply avoid eating the 12-16 hours before traveling internationally, is just as effective.
- Bring along an object from home to help with sleeping. It helps us be at ease when being in a new environment.
WHAT TO DO WHILE YOU ARE FLYING
- Avoid Alcohol during the flight. The impact of alcohol on the body is 2-3X stronger when you’re flying. So one cocktail = 3 on the ground.
- Try to sleep on the flight based on a normal time to sleep at the local destination you are heading to.
- Avoid eating heavy meals on the flight. According to the World Health Organization, 50% of international travellers experience stomach problems, so dietary care is a top priority while flying.
- Drink water! The air in airplanes is very dry. To people who normally live in more humid conditions the change can be especially striking. The dryness can cause headaches, dry skin and dry nasal and throat membranes, creating the perfect conditions for catching colds, coughs, sore throats or even the flu.
- Get up and walk around. Sitting crunched can be taxing on the body. Even try simply lifting your feet off the ground and engaging in core exercises while sitting.
- Get comfortable. Taking off your shoes eases pressure. Bring along earplugs and wear an eye mask. Never be afraid to bring along a sleeping pillow and always fly in comfortable clothing.
- Use sleeping pills with caution. They only mask problems and don’t help your body clock adjust to the time zone shift.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARRIVE
- You should still avoid heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine right when you arrive. They exacerbate jet lag symptoms.
- Going west? Get the morning light when you arrive and avoid afternoon light. Going east? Seek afternoon light and avoid light in the mornings. The most important cue when adjusting your body clock to a new time zone is light.
- Have a workout routine? Aim for light exercise during the day the first day, and then ease into your normal regimen. Avoid heavy exercise right before bed. It can actually make falling asleep more difficult.
- Keep your bedroom at a consistent temperature: Generally, temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees will awaken people.
- Short business trip? Stay closer or completely on ‘home time’ for trips shorter than 4 days. Try to time sleeping and eating when it occurs at home.
- Naps are not the enemy, especially if you have trouble sleeping soundly through the night after international travel. It’s good to aim for a nap between 20 minutes to an hour and a half. More than that and it can make you feel more sluggish.
- Take a warm shower or bath before bedtime. The drop in body temperature can make you sleepy and help you fall asleep faster.
- At night try to get a minimum of 4 hard hours of sleep during the local night time.
Although there are no guarantees to a fast and sound sleep when traveling by air, these simple adjustments in your travel planning could help you get the quality of rest needed to be at 100% the next time you travel.