Jet Lag

What Is Jet Lag

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Jet lag or desynchronosis is a short-term sleep disorder that affects individuals who travel through several time zones in a short period of time. It temporarily affects our body clock or circadian rhythms which regulates our sleep-wake cycle.

What Is Jet Lag?

It is a temporary mental condition that occurs due to impaired circadian rhythms, our internal body clock, as a result of rapidly traveling across time zones. The condition is also known as jet lag disorder, flight fatigue, circadian desynchrony and time zone change syndrome. Desynchronosis may also occur when a person’s sleep cycle is altered or disrupted due to various experiences, such as night shift work 1 . According to a 2015 study 2 , “Jet lag and shift work disorder are circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders resulting from behaviorally altering the sleep-wake schedule in relation to the external environment.” It is believed that an individual may experience severe symptoms if they travel eastward. However, not every person travelling through different time zones will experience this psychological condition. The sufferer may experience symptoms like –

  • Insomnia
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue
  • Tiredness
  • Drowsiness
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Low energy
  • Impaired alertness

Although the symptoms are not too severe, they can adversely affect the sufferer’s overall well-being and cause mental & physical discomfort. Our body is aligned to an internal 24-hour cycle which manages when we sleep and wake up. This condition happens when we travel to a new time zone, but our mind and body is still aligned to the original time zone. This is why the symptoms tend to be more serious when a person travels multiple time zones. Jet lag was earlier regarded as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder 3 . “Jet lag is a syndrome associated with long-haul flights across several time zones, characterized by sleep disturbances, daytime fatigue, reduced performance, gastrointestinal problems, and generalized malaise.”, explains a 2014 study 4 . However, with effective treatment, the symptoms can be relieved.

Read More About Insomnia Here

Understanding Jet Lag Disorder

Circadian rhythm, often known as the body clock, is considered a 24-hour cycle in the physiological process of living beings that carries out all the essential functions and processes of the body. The sleep-wake cycle is one of the most important circadian rhythms that can promote consistent and restorative sleep if properly aligned. Jet lag refers to a physiological condition that occurs when the body’s circadian rhythm is disrupted. The long-distance rapid plane travels across three or more different time zones often upset the 24-hour circadian rhythm that disrupts sleep, other activity patterns, the ability to be alert, and effective functioning of the body. This disorder increases the physical burden of long flights & shows that one’s body is unable to synchronize with the new time zone, particularly with the external time cues such as the light-dark cycle and local time clock.

A sufferer may experience a combination of fatigue, drowsiness, irritation, tiredness, and other bothersome symptoms that can persist for days even weeks after traveling. The more time zones a person travels in a short period, the more severe the symptoms become. A 2011 study 5 has explained that older persons may experience extreme difficulty in recovering from this disorder as their body functions take a longer time to get back into sync. Meanwhile, children have milder symptoms than older people. Lack of sleep or no sleep before or during traveling often contributes negatively to increase the symptoms. This disorder has no specific cure, but the symptoms and impacts can be reduced with careful planning.

Symptoms Of Jet Lag

Symptoms Of Jet Lag

People usually experience this disorder as a sleeping problem for a few days after their long flights. If they don’t sleep at all or have short naps during traveling, it may cause them to feel sleep-deprived and make the rhythms of alertness, body temperature, the melatonin hormone, and sleepiness misaligned. This physiological condition triggers certain bothersome signs and symptoms. Though the symptoms may vary according to the age of people and the number of time zones they travel across within a short time, some of the most common severe symptoms of this disorder include:

1. Sleep disturbances

This disorder makes it harder for people to fall asleep or wake up earlier than planned. It may cause extreme sleepiness, insomnia, lethargy, severe fatigue, and a fragmented sleeping pattern. One may also feel drowsy or tired during the daytime. According to a 2010 study 6 , it affects the sleep architecture of a person that may increase the risk of sleeping paralysis and nighttime seizures.

2. Digestion problems

Research 7 has explained that it can induce gastrointestinal problems such as reduced appetite, nausea, irregular bowel syndrome, constipation, and diarrhea.

3. Impaired decision making

Studies 8 have reported that jet lag is associated with memory loss. One may face difficulties in remembering things, making decisions, experiencing problems with attention and judgments. It often slowers one’s capability of thinking.

4. Emotional problems

In certain cases, sufferers tend to feel irritated most of the time. Research 9 suggests that jet lag can even exacerbate mental health issues such as mood disorders.

5. Disrupted physical and mental function

Sufferers may feel malaise that refers to a general feeling of uneasiness, illness, and discomfort. It makes one feel extremely tired during the daytime. A 2012 study 10 has shown that the performances of traveling athletes can be affected negatively because of these symptoms.

Causes Of Jet Lag

Causes Of Jet Lag

Jet lag mainly happens due to rapid travel across different time zones that disrupt the alignment of the circadian rhythm which controls when one wakes up or falls asleep. A 2009 study 11 suggested that traveling east can worsen the symptoms of this disorder than traveling west. This occurs because traveling westwards prolongs the body clock’s experience of its normal day-night cycle. One cannot experience this disorder if traveling north-south and not crossing multiple time zones. But jet lag can be influenced or triggered because of certain other factors such as:

1. Age

People’s age is a significant factor in inducing jet lag. Research 12 has shown that older people experience more severe symptoms and their body clock takes a longer time to get back in sync than children and young adults. Meanwhile, a 2002 study 13 has reported that young pilots experience worse symptoms.

2. Sunlight

A 2019 study 14 has mentioned that spending a longer screen time or too much sunlight in the airplane’s cabin disrupts the alignment of the body clock as light controls the amount of melatonin the body makes. Melatonin is a hormone that releases at nighttime and prepares the body to fall asleep.

3. Stress

A 2012 study 15 has mentioned that a stressed-out mind may interfere with one’s sleep and make it difficult to recover from this disorder.

4. Alcohol and caffeine

Research 5 has found that consuming alcohol and caffeine during the flight may deteriorate the symptoms as these can cause extreme dehydration to one. These affect the brain in a way that may disrupt sleep. While alcohol induces sleep, it lowers the quality of it and causes even travel fatigue.

5. Altitude sickness, dehydration, and lower oxygen level

The pressure of the airplane’s cabin is generally lower than normal that refers to the presence of a lower oxygen level also. According to researchers 16 , this reduced level of oxygen saturation often causes lethargy and can worsen the symptoms.

6. Trip details

The entire specifics of the trip that include the total distance, number of time zones crossed, local daylight hours, direction, and the length of time at the destination can have a significant impact on this disorder.

7. Lack of proper sleep

Studies 17 have stated that lack of sleep or no proper sleep in the days leading up to a flight or during the flight can trigger the symptoms.

8. Past experience

A 2014 research paper explained that people who have experienced the symptom of this disorder previously are more likely to have it again.

Preventing The Symptoms

Preventing The Symptoms

This disorder doesn’t involve any proper treatment, but one can reduce or prevent the bothersome symptoms with the help of a few beneficial remedies. A 2010 study 18 suggests that “Strictly treating the symptoms of jet lag (ie, treating only insomnia and/or sleepiness) does not necessarily treat jet lag itself. In fact, one must take care not to further shift the clock in the wrong direction when treating the symptoms of jet lag.” The following are some beneficial ways to prevent this disorder.

1. Melatonin

One can take a melatonin supplement 19 after consulting with the doctor. A 2014 research paper 20 has suggested that melatonin helps trigger healthy sleep when someone is unable to. These supplements are very fast-acting, but they may make one feel drowsy after waking up.

2. Sunshine

Research has explained that being in the sunlight during prime daylight hours after reaching the destination may help one to reset his/her body clock and reduce the extreme symptoms.

3. Sleeping aids

Sleeping pills may help a lot if any person is experiencing insomnia during travel. But it is important to consult the doctor before taking such tablets as these have several side effects too. Try to sleep while traveling eastward.

4. Light therapy

One can use lighted boxes, lamps, and visors to be awake during the period of drowsiness. A 2011 study 21 has reported that artificial light therapy is considered to be helpful for resetting the circadian rhythm.

5. Avoid alcohol and caffeine

Alcohol and caffeine 22 consumption can cause dehydration that may lead to sleep disruption during travel. These beverages can trigger nausea, travel anxiety, and other disturbing symptoms also.

6. Stay hydrated

Drinking plenty of water during the flight helps one to stay hydrated and counteract the effects of the dry atmosphere of the plane cabin.

7. Be active

Studies 23 have suggested that keeping the body active during travel by doing stretching, walking, moving around, and outdoor exercise after reaching the place helps to prevent the symptoms of jet lag.

8. Select flight timing wisely

To avoid the symptoms, one requires to choose a flight that will arrive at the destination in the early evening. Staying up until bedtime is not as hard.

9. Eat carefully and take a hot bath

Eating at the appropriate time and having fresh fruits, vegetables can help one to stay hydrated. One should avoid overeating during travel. The quantity of food may affect sleep. Taking a hot bath 24 after reaching the destination makes it easier to fall asleep fast.

Recovery From This Disorder

Jet lag is a temporary disorder that people experience during air traveling across different time zones and even for a few days after traveling. Older people take a longer time to recover from this disorder. But the recovery time hugely depends on the number of time zones crossed while traveling. People generally recover from it within a few days as the complications are not extremely severe and quite rare. It takes a few days for the body to adjust to the new time zone, but people can speed up the process by adjusting their eating, sleeping, and working schedules right away.

Jet Lag At A Glance 

  1. It is a temporary mental condition that occurs due to impaired circadian rhythms, our internal body clock, as a result of rapidly traveling across time zones.
  2. People usually experience this disorder as a sleeping problem for a few days after their long flights.
  3. This disorder doesn’t involve any proper treatment, but one can reduce or prevent the bothersome symptoms with the help of a few beneficial remedies.
  4. Jet lag is a temporary disorder that people experience during air travel across different time zones and even for a few days after traveling.
👇 References:
  1. Arendt J. (1997). Jet lag/night shift, blindness and melatonin. Transactions of the Medical Society of London, 114, 7–9. []
  2. Reid, K. J., & Abbott, S. M. (2015). Jet Lag and Shift Work Disorder. Sleep medicine clinics, 10(4), 523–535. []
  3. Zhu, L., & Zee, P. C. (2012). Circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Neurologic clinics, 30(4), 1167–1191. []
  4. Herxheimer A. (2014). Jet lag. BMJ clinical evidence, 2014, 2303. []
  5. Choy, M., & Salbu, R. L. (2011). Jet lag: current and potential therapies. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 36(4), 221–231. [][]
  6. Vosko, A. M., Colwell, C. S., & Avidan, A. Y. (2010). Jet lag syndrome: circadian organization, pathophysiology, and management strategies. Nature and science of sleep, 2, 187–198. []
  7. Duboc, H., Coffin, B., & Siproudhis, L. (2020). Disruption of Circadian Rhythms and Gut Motility: An Overview of Underlying Mechanisms and Associated Pathologies. Journal of clinical gastroenterology, 54(5), 405–414. []
  8. Richardson, M., Parkins, S., Kaneza, I., & Dauphin, A. C. (2020). Jet Lag Recovery and Memory Functions Are Correlated with Direct Light Effects on Locomotion. Journal of biological rhythms, 35(6), 588–597. []
  9. Walker, W. H., 2nd, Walton, J. C., DeVries, A. C., & Nelson, R. J. (2020). Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health. Translational psychiatry, 10(1), 28. []
  10. Lee, A., & Galvez, J. C. (2012). Jet lag in athletes. Sports health, 4(3), 211–216. []
  11. Eastman, C. I., & Burgess, H. J. (2009). How To Travel the World Without Jet lag. Sleep medicine clinics, 4(2), 241–255. []
  12. Moline, M. L., Pollak, C. P., Monk, T. H., Lester, L. S., Wagner, D. R., Zendell, S. M., Graeber, R. C., Salter, C. A., & Hirsch, E. (1992). Age-related differences in recovery from simulated jet lag. Sleep, 15(1), 28–40. []
  13. Waterhouse, J., Edwards, B., Nevill, A., Carvalho, S., Atkinson, G., Buckley, P., Reilly, T., Godfrey, R., & Ramsay, R. (2002). Identifying some determinants of “jet lag” and its symptoms: a study of athletes and other travellers. British journal of sports medicine, 36(1), 54–60. []
  14. Blume, C., Garbazza, C., & Spitschan, M. (2019). Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie, 23(3), 147-156. []
  15. Han, K. S., Kim, L., & Shim, I. (2012). Stress and sleep disorder. Experimental neurobiology, 21(4), 141–150. []
  16. Silverman, D., & Gendreau, M. (2009). Medical issues associated with commercial flights. Lancet (London, England), 373(9680), 2067–2077. []
  17. Ambesh, P., Shetty, V., Ambesh, S., Gupta, S. S., Kamholz, S., & Wolf, L. (2018). Jet lag: Heuristics and therapeutics. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 7(3), 507–510. []
  18. Vosko, A. M., Colwell, C. S., & Avidan, A. Y. (2010). Jet lag syndrome: circadian organization, pathophysiology, and management strategies. Nature and science of sleep, 2, 187–198. []
  19. Arendt J. (2018). Approaches to the Pharmacological Management of Jet Lag. Drugs, 78(14), 1419–1431. []
  20. Costello, R. B., Lentino, C. V., Boyd, C. C., O’Connell, M. L., Crawford, C. C., Sprengel, M. L., & Deuster, P. A. (2014). The effectiveness of melatonin for promoting healthy sleep: a rapid evidence assessment of the literature. Nutrition journal, 13, 106. []
  21. Dodson, E. R., & Zee, P. C. (2010). Therapeutics for Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders. Sleep medicine clinics, 5(4), 701–715. []
  22. Ambesh, P., Shetty, V., Ambesh, S., Gupta, S. S., Kamholz, S., & Wolf, L. (2018). Jet lag: Heuristics and therapeutics. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 7(3), 507–510. []
  23. Shiota, M., Sudou, M., & Ohshima, M. (1996). Using outdoor exercise to decrease jet lag in airline crewmembers. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 67(12), 1155–1160. []
  24. Herxheimer, A., & Waterhouse, J. (2003). The prevention and treatment of jet lag. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 326(7384), 296–297. []
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