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    JetLag and Your Sleep: How to Get Back to Normal

    March 21, 2022 7 min read

    jet lag Jet Lag and Your Sleep How to Get Back to Normal sea plane waiting on palm fringed beach

    JetLag and Your Sleep: How to Get Back to Normal

    Jetlag is commonly identified as a disruption of circadian rhythms that have been thrown out of sync. There are several ways to mitigate the effects of jetlag, but these preventative and treatment methods have varying results in individuals, and many have not been scientifically confirmed.

    Image of a beautiful palm front beach in Tahiti

    Don't get here 👆 and spend the first 3 day exhausted from jetlag

    What is the definition of jetlag? 

    Jet lag is a short-term circadian rhythm sleep disorder


    It is predominantly caused by air travel at high speed across two or more time zones. 


    Our regular sleep routine or day-night routine is thrown out of sync from our usual time zone and requires time to acclimatize to the new destination time zone.


    The earth rotates at about 15 degrees longitude every hour, and a full day will constitute 24 time zones that cover the 360 degrees of rotation of the earth. 


    The distance between the zones is greater at the equator due to the earth's curvature. The equator is 24 902 miles long, and each time zone will be 1 038 miles long.


    The biology of our body is synchronized to the natural day-night clock of our fixed position on the globe, which regulates our sleep pattern. 


    Jetlag occurs when this synchronization is disrupted, and our body still produces melatonin at the time we were tuned into. Our body can adjust to different time zones at one to two time zones per day. This is why jet lag is defined as traveling across two or more time zones. 


    The American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines jetlag as a sleep-related syndrome that will result in daytime sleepiness or an inability to sleep at night after traveling through two or more time zones.

    View out a plane from the cabin nighttime

    What causes Jet lag?

    Jet lag is caused by your biological systems being thrown out of sync with your body's day-night pattern at your new destination. 


    A time difference of two or more time zones will result in jet lag symptoms that differ between individuals and may be more severe for older people than children and young adults.


    The body can adjust naturally to a 1 to 1,5 change in time zone per day, but a difference of over two zones crossed in one day will bring on symptoms.

    How does jet lag affect the natural body clock and the brain?

    How the brain is affected by jetlag


    There are two groups of neurons in the brain that are separate but linked in function. 


    They are part of a structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is situated in the anterior portion of the hypothalamus at the base of the brain.


    The SCN adjusts slowly to changes in time zones while biological body clocks and neuron groups adjust at different rates. 


    One of the groups of neurons is linked to deep sleep and responds to physical fatigue


    A separate group is linked to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and this group of neurons has difficulty adjusting to the new time cycle, resulting in the groups of neurons shifting out of sync.


    In essence, jetlagthrows your body functions and your brain out of alignment, where your body adjusts faster than your brain to the new time zone.

    Image of a women sleeping in a bed of flowers

    Symptoms of jet lag

    Long periods of sitting on a plane in a confined space contribute to jet lag symptoms, as does the lack of oxygen and decreased air pressure in the aircraft cabin.


    Dehydration is another cause of jet lag symptoms. The warm cabin temperature and low humidity are often amplified by consuming alcohol and caffeine products before and during the flight.


    There is a range of jet lag symptoms, and the more common symptoms include:

    • Disrupted sleep: It becomes difficult to fall asleep at a set time, or you may wake up earlier than usual. Your sleep pattern can also be fragmented, which deprives you of essential quality sleep, or you could experience insomnia. 
    • Sleepiness during the day: A common symptom is feeling sleepy or tired during daylight hours. This leads to impaired thinking, a poor attention span, and memory difficulties which periodic headaches may accompany.
    • Physical reactions and ability: Because your body is in a lull, you will not be able to function normally or at your peak. This primarily affects traveling athletes who depend on physical performance.
    • Emotional swings: The feeling of irritability from jet lag results in mood swings and will feed on underlying mood disorders. You may also feel a degree of discomfort, illness, or a sense of uneasiness.
    • Digestive system: You may experience gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, nausea, and a loss of appetite.
    • Sleep paralysis and seizures: This is rare but should be kept in mind as the jet lag increases the risk of sleep paralysis and nightmare seizures.
    Airplane wing view for inside cockpit

    People suffering from jet lag will experience one or more of the listed symptoms, which can begin immediately or within a few days of arriving in a new time zone.

    Factors that increase the severity of jet lag

    Most people suffer more from jetlag when traveling east instead of traveling west.


    This difference is noticeable as it is easier to delay your internal clock than advance it. The difference in lifestyle and other factors means that not every person who travels at speed through time zones will suffer from jetlag


    The severity of jetlag depends on a combination of factors that includes:

    • Trip details: direction of travel, time zones crossed, local daylight hours, layovers, and other trip details like arrival time all impact the severity of jetlag. With eastward travel, arriving in the afternoon may result in milder jet lag, whereas a morning arrival may compound the symptoms.
    • The passenger's age: It is more difficult for passengers over 60 years old to recover from jetlag as their circadian rhythms are more set to a specific routine. Clinical studies point to this but have not confirmed that age significantly impacts jet lag sufferers.
    • Poor sleep before travel: A disrupted sleep pattern before departure can exacerbate symptoms.
    • Stress: Being stressed affects quality sleep and will undoubtedly increase the severity of jetlag symptoms and make it more difficult to recover. 
    • Stimulants: Caffeine and alcohol affect sleep by keeping the brain stimulated. This will compound the symptoms of jetlag and could make it much worse.
    • Medical history: If you have a history of suffering from jetlag, you will be more prone to being affected when traveling across two or more time zones.


    View of new york city from plane cabin window at night

    General individual variation:


    As mentioned, not all passengers are affected by jetlag in the same way

    • Researchers cannot fully understand why some people are more affected than others.

    Because jetlag affects some passengers in different degrees, there is no set recovery time from jetlag; however, on average, it takes one day to recover from every time zone crossed.

    Actions that help to reduce and recover from jetlag.

    You can reduce or prevent jet lag from short trips by scheduling activities to stay aligned with your home routine. This will keep your circadian rhythm in its usual functioning manner, and no adjustments will be necessary, even on your return home.

    Longer trips that pass through several time zones will require acclimatizing to the day-night cycle of your destination. You can begin readjusting your circadian rhythm in the days leading up to your departure, which will minimize the effects of jet lag. Here are a few other things to consider that may help reduce jet lag:

    • Light exposure: Exposure to light influences your circadian rhythm, and strategic exposure to light may help reorientation of your circadian rhythm to minimize the effects of jet lag. Correctly timed exposure to natural daylight can help you readjust to the new time zone. Alternatively, can use lightboxes used for light therapy to speed up the process.
    • Melatonin and sleep aid: melatonin is a hormone in your body that makes you feel sleepy and is usually produced in the evening. Prescription medication that helps your body produce melatonin will ensure adequate sleep, and research indicates that such medication can reduce jet lag. However, although sleeping pills will ensure you have a night of adequate sleep, they do not help as a treatment for jet lag. Using any sleep aid should be at your doctor's direction as such medication can result in unnecessary falls or other accidents. Prescribed medication, including melatonin, can be taken onto the flight with you.
    • Create a plan to overcome jet lag: Your doctor, travel nurse, or sleep specialist can help you devise a plan to manage jet lag better. Some online resources and apps can tailor a plan to address jet lag based on the details of your pending trip.
    • Set days aside after your arrival:  Plan your schedule for a few days before departure, give yourself time to sleep, and follow your plan to get adequate light exposure to begin an early transition to the new time zone. Minimize your stress levels and get quality sleep to avoid being sleep-deprived before flying.
    • Stay hydrated: Drink enough fluids but avoid caffeine and alcohol.
    • Eat light, healthy meals: This will reduce strain on your digestive system.
    • Body movements while in flight: Try standing up and walking or stretching a bit while on board. This helps with your blood circulation and avoids stiffness and the potential of blood clots forming from sitting too long. You can always use the excuse of a weak bladder to frequent the restroom just so that you can stretch your limbs.
    • Exercise outdoors on arrival: Expose yourself to enough daylight and mix this up with some light exercises like walking in a park to help your body adjust to the new time zone.
    • Keep daytimes short: Try and avoid daytime naps over half an hour. You may have to go an outdoor walk and enjoy the sunlight and fresh air; otherwise, you may fall asleep if you're not active.

    When to seek help.

    If your symptoms persist or worsen after a week of arriving at your destination, it is best to consult a medical doctor. 


    You may be experiencing other symptoms not related to jet lag like fever, vomiting, a cough, sore throat, or flu-like symptoms. In this case, it's best to seek medical attention to clarify the cause and begin with treatment if necessary.


    Jet lag influences your sleep, which affects your general health, and you may become more susceptible to health-related issues common in your new destination. 


    Suppose you feel that the symptoms of jet lag you are experiencing seem to be excessive at any time. 


    In that case, a medical examination will help reduce your stress level and give you peace of mind as you progress with aligning your circadian rhythm to your new destination.

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