Jet Lag: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

When we travel across time zones, we often experience jet lag, a disruption to our natural sleep-wake cycle. We each have an internal clock, also known as our circadian rhythm, that controls the times of day we feel awake versus tired. Our natural circadian clock is synced with the rising and setting of the sun. This cycle adjusts our body temperature, blood pressure, and hormone levels to influence sleep.

When traveling to a new time zone, our internal clock remains synced to our local time, rather than the new one. This causes a biological imbalance that affects our sleep and overall health.

Throughout this article, we cover the causes and symptoms of jet lag. We also break down several different treatment options and ways to reset your internal clock.

Causes of Jet Lag

Disruptions to Natural Circadian Rhythm and Light Exposure

As we mentioned above, our circadian rhythm influences our sleep-wake cycle. This cycle is influenced by light. Receptors in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) receive light signals from the retina that either trigger or delay melatonin production, the sleep hormone.

When we are exposed to sunlight during the day, melatonin production slows, allowing us to remain active and alert. In the evening, as light exposure decreases, melatonin increases, signaling the mind and body to sleep.

We experience jet lag when our circadian rhythm becomes disrupted due to a change in time zone and light exposure. Jet lag symptoms worsen based on the number of time zones we travel across. Traveling to a location with a 1 to 3 hour time change may not cause jet lag.

However, traveling overseas to a time zone 8 to 16 hours different from your local time can cause severe jet lag. This is because your sleep schedule and other biological functions, such as hunger, are out of sync with the new time zone.

Symptoms have also been shown to worsen when traveling east rather than west. This is likely because it is harder to advance our internal clock than it is to delay it.

Airplane Cabin Pressure and Atmosphere

Studies show symptoms of jet lag are also influenced by the high altitudes and low oxygen levels associated with air travel. When less oxygen reaches the brain, it causes lethargy and symptoms similar to altitude sickness, such as fatigue, nausea, and headaches. The low humidity levels inside the airplane cabin can also cause dehydration and make jet lag even worse.

Travel Fatigue

Frequent travelers, such as flight attendants and business travelers, often develop travel fatigue. Travel fatigue is not always connected to jet lag. However, the total exhaustion and stress associated with constant travel cause symptoms similar to jet lag, such as daytime fatigue, mood swings, and the inability to focus.

Symptoms of Jet Lag

The symptoms of jet lag can vary based on the number of time zones crossed, your age, and overall health. Older adults and those with medical conditions typically experience more severe jet lag symptoms and often need more time to become synced to a new schedule.

  • Daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and low energy levels
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia, oversleeping, and frequently sleep disruptions
  • Poor cognitive function and difficulty focusing
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Slow hand-eye coordination
  • Mood swings
  • Digestive issues, such as nausea
  • Loss of appetite

Treatment for Jet Lag

In most cases, jet lag is temporary. Once your body clock becomes synced to your new time zone, you will start sleeping regularly and experience fewer nighttime disruptions. However, there are preventative measures that can speed up the adjustment process and decrease symptoms.

Manage Light Exposure

The best way to treat jet lag is by resetting your body’s internal clock—this can be done by naturally influencing your melatonin production with light exposure. When you are ready to sleep, whether on the plane or hotel room, make sure your sleep space is as dark as possible. You can do this by using an eye mask or closing the blinds and curtains in your room. The darkness will trigger melatonin and help you fall asleep quickly.

If you arrive at your new location in the morning or afternoon but plan to sleep right away, wear sunglasses when leaving the airport to prevent too much sunlight exposure.

If you plan to stay awake once you arrive, increase your sunlight exposure by sitting or walking outside during the daylight hours. More sunlight naturally slows melatonin and helps you feel awake.

Timing of Flights

When purchasing your flight, try to arrive at your new location in the morning or early evening. Arriving in the morning allows you to sleep on the plane and begin your day once you arrive. If you arrive in the early evening, you can plan to sleep around 10 p.m. local time. Therefore, you will be more in sync with the local bedtime.

If you have a meeting or an important event, try to arrive in your new time zone 2 to 3 days in advance. This extra time gives your biological clock plenty of time to adjust first.

Gradually Adjust Your Sleep Schedule

Before you leave your local time zone, you can gradually adjust your sleep schedule to your new time zone. If you are traveling east, start by going to bed 1 hour earlier than you normally would. Gradually increase your bedtime by 1 hour for 3 to 4 nights before departure. If you are traveling west, go to bed 1 hour later every night. Delay your sleep each night for roughly 3 to 4 nights.

Physical Activity

If you plan to arrive at your new location in the afternoon or evening, you should stay awake on your flight. This can make it easier for you to fall asleep once you arrive. Gentle stretching and walking on the plane improves blood circulation and keeps your body and mind alert. Likewise, once you land, exercise can help you stay awake until bedtime.

Sync to the Local Schedule

Once you arrive, try to sync to your new time zone. This includes your sleep schedule and mealtimes. By immediately adjusting your schedule, you help your body’s internal clock sync to the new time zone.

Stay Hydrated and Eat Light

On long flights, be sure to drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated prevents dehydration and reduces symptoms of jet lag. Also, be sure to eat light and healthy snacks and meals. When your body is working to digest heavy, fatty foods, it can be difficult to fall asleep and rest soundly.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can jet lag make you feel sick?

Yes. Jet lag can cause an overall feeling of sickness and discomfort. The disruption to your sleep schedule leads to a hormonal imbalance. The combination of this imbalance and a lack of sleep can cause headaches, nausea, digestive issues, confusion, loss of appetite, and extreme fatigue.

Can jet lag cause anxiety?

Jet lag often leads to sleep deprivation, making it difficult to control your mood and manage stress. While there is no evidence jet lag directly leads to anxiety, the symptoms associated with jet lag and sleep loss can leave you feeling anxious and stressed.

Can melatonin supplements help with jet lag?

The use of melatonin supplements has become popular in recent years. However, we suggest avoiding this supplement and increasing your melatonin levels naturally with light exposure.

Melatonin is classified as a dietary supplement—this means dosing is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and there are no medically approved guidelines for use. With no clear regulations, it can be difficult to determine a safe and effective dose of melatonin.

Plus, this supplement affects each person differently. Your age, body weight, and current medications can change the way melatonin affects your sleep. High levels of melatonin have been linked to dangerous side effects, such as sleep disruptions, headaches, anxiety, dizziness, abdominal cramping, and nausea.

How long does jet lag last?

In most cases, symptoms of jet lag improve within one to three days. As you adjust your schedule, your body’s circadian rhythm becomes synced to the new location, and you experience fewer symptoms of jet lag.

What food is good for jet lag?

Certain foods encourage the production of melatonin and help you fall asleep faster and recover from jet lag. The best foods for sleep include honey, oats, almonds, bananas, and cherries. These foods contain amino acids your body needs to produce melatonin. Foods rich in certain vitamins and minerals, such as potassium and magnesium, can also increase relaxation and help you get a good night’s sleep.

Conclusion

Although jet lag is inconvenient and uncomfortable, the tips outlined above can help reduce symptoms and get your sleep schedule back on track. When traveling to different time zones, especially those drastically different from your local time, it is essential to take care of your body. A healthy diet, plenty of water, regular physical activity, and controlling your natural melatonin production will help you adjust to your new location quickly.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Michelle Zhang, Wellness Writer Michelle Zhang

Michelle Zhang is a regular contributor to our Zoma blog and is our go-to sleep researcher. In her time with Zoma, Michelle has researched and published many articles on widespread sleeping habits and troubles. In her time outside of Zoma, Michelle is an occupational therapist and long-distance runner. She believes leading a healthy lifestyle is the key to getting better sleep at night.

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