Jet lag

Dr. Rajalakshmi VK (AIIMS)MBBS

September 09, 2020

December 27, 2022

Jet lag
Jet lag

The human body has its own internal clock that follows the circadian rhythms. It is this circadian rhythm of the body that tells us when to wake up and when to fall asleep.

When these wake-sleep patterns are disrupted due to travelling across time zones, we may feel disoriented and drowsy. This is known as jet lag disorder.

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Jet lag is a temporary sleep problem that can easily get better as the body gets accustomed to the newer timings. It occurs because the body’s clock is in sync to your original time zone.

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Symptoms of jet lag

The farther you travel in a short span of time, the more intense the symptoms of jet lag can be.

Age also plays a role in the intensity of symptoms. While children recover quickly from jet lag, older people’s bodies take longer to get back in sync with the time zone

Anything that significantly disturbs the body clock or circadian clock can be the reason for jet lag. Indeed, jet lag tends to be worse when you are travelling eastwards, where you gain daylight hours. Some of the classic symptoms of jet lag are:

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Causes of jet lag

As mentioned above, the body has a circadian rhythm that regulates various physicochemical processes continuously. This includes activities such as eating, regulating body temperature, sleeping and waking.

These circadian rhythms get affected by a variety of external environmental factors, such as the light-dark cycle of night and day. When you travel across time zones, the body’s sync to these external environmental factors breaks momentarily, resulting in jet lag.

A key role is played by a hormone called melatonin that helps synchronize cells throughout the body. At night, when the light signal is low, the hypothalamus tells the pineal gland, a small organ in the brain, to release melatonin. During daylight hours, the opposite occurs, and the pineal gland produces very little melatonin. It thus regulates sleep. But when we switch time zones, melatonin production goes haphazard owing to the change in sunlight hours.

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Jet lag tips

What to do in jet lag:

Regulate meal times: Experts suggest regulating your meal timings more than trying to control sleep patterns. Their suggestion: don’t eat up to two hours before the flight or during the long-haul flight. Instead, focus on hydrating and eat when you reach your destination. If possible, try and eat as close to the local breakfast/lunch/dinner time as possible. It might be a good idea to avoid heavy meals.

Regulate light exposure: Light has the most significant impact on the body’s circadian rhythm. Managing your exposure to light by spending time outdoors if you’ve traveled east and avoiding sunlight in case you've traveled west will help you in adjusting your sleep cycle.

Stay hydrated: It is common to get dehydrated while travelling. However, dehydration can worsen the symptoms of jet lag. It is, therefore, important to keep yourself well hydrated

Eat bananas: Bananas have a protein called tryptophan that makes them very efficient in fighting off jet lag. Tryptophan increases the serotonin levels in your body which helps in taking control of your sleep schedule.

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Things to avoid in jet lag

Here are some things you should not do to prevent or improve the symptoms of jet lag:

  • Don't drink alcohol and caffeine, as these may make you feel like you are consuming liquids and keeping yourself hydrated but they will further dehydrate you.
  • Try to avoid short layovers: Non-stop flight or ones with just enough time to change planes are best. This is because short layovers don’t give the body enough time to adjust to the surroundings. 
  • Don't sleep before you fly: Get on the flight sleep-deprived 
  • When you reach your destination, don't take naps longer than 30 minutes, as these can keep you from falling asleep at night. Try to stay awake until your normal bedtime (in the new time zone) and to get up on time the next day.

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Takeaway for jet lag

Our body keeps time through what is known as the circadian rhythm. This timing is important because it tells the brain and all systems of the body what to expect when. When we travel across time zones, the body experiences jet lag—there is a temporary disconnect between our body clock and our current time zone. Even though it is not possible to entirely prevent the condition, it is possible to manage the symptoms of jet lag by drinking water and sleeping according to the local time zone.

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  1. Marc Wittmann,Jenny Dinich,Martha Merrow,Till Roenneberg Social Jetlag: Misalignment of Biological and Social Time The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research Volume 23, 2006 - Issue 1-2
  2. Jim Waterhouse, Thomas Reilly, Greg Atkinson, Ben Edwards Jet lag: trends and coping strategies The Lancet, Volume 369, Issue 9567, 2007, Pages 1117-1129
  3. Herxheimer A, Petrie KJ. Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2002, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001520