What is jet lag?
Jet lag describes common sleep problems (such as insomnia) and other symptoms people experience after traveling a long distance quickly. When you travel across more than two time zones by plane, your body’s “internal clock” (or circadian rhythm) needs time to adjust to the new sleep and wake cycles at your destination. Jet lag is a type of circadian rhythm sleep disorder.
What are circadian rhythms?
Circadian rhythms are patterns your body follows based on a 24-hour day. These rhythms tell your body when to sleep and when to wake up. They also affect several other body processes, such as your hormones, digestion and body temperature.
Your body sets these rhythms naturally, guided by your brain. But outside factors (such as light) can affect these rhythms, too. For example, when light enters your eye, cells send a message to your brain that it can stop producing melatonin (a hormone that helps you sleep).
How does jet lag happen?
Flying through two or more time zones can upset the circadian rhythms your body knows well. Jet lag means your body is out of sync with the daylight-nighttime schedule of your destination.
Your body will adjust to this change in environment. But it takes time. Think of jet lag symptoms as “growing pains” while your body gets used to your new surroundings.
How common is jet lag?
Jet lag is a common issue many people experience when traveling. However, people can experience jet lag in different ways and to varying degrees. Some people (especially children) may not notice any problems adapting to a new time zone.
Is jet lag worse going east or west?
Medical experts generally agree that flying eastward may cause more severe jet lag symptoms than flying toward the west. Researchers say that’s because your body can adapt more quickly to staying up late than going to bed earlier than normal.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes jet lag?
Jet lag usually happens when you travel by plane two or more time zones away. Jet lag symptoms result from your body’s natural rhythms being out of sync with the day- and nighttime hours of your destination.
Plane travel makes jet lag worse because your body moves much faster than your brain and circadian rhythms can process the time change. Other aspects of travel can also contribute to jet lag and may make symptoms worse:
- Long periods of sitting on a plane.
- Lack of oxygen and decreased air pressure in the airplane cabin.
- Warm cabin temperature and low humidity, which can cause dehydration.
What are the symptoms of jet lag?
You may experience one or more jet lag symptoms:
- Difficulty falling asleep (insomnia).
- Drowsiness during the day.
- Lack of focus or concentration.
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue).
- General feeling of being “off” or not like yourself.
- Upset stomach.
- Mood changes, such as irritability.
What does jet lag feel like?
Jet lag affects people differently. Overall, you can expect more severe jet lag when you fly farther. That’s because greater distances require your body to make a bigger adjustment.
If you “lost” several hours during travel, you may have difficulty falling asleep as your body adjusts to a new nighttime schedule (when it’s used to being alert and awake).
Conversely, if you “gain” several hours during travel, you may get sleepy during daylight hours (when your body would normally be asleep back home).
Diagnosis and Tests
How is jet lag diagnosed?
Most people who experience jet lag have minor symptoms. They generally don’t seek medical care. Symptoms usually go away on their own within days.
Call your healthcare provider if you are concerned about your symptoms or feel like your body isn’t adjusting to a new location as it should. If your sleep problems don’t go away or affect your quality of life, your provider may recommend a sleep study. Providers perform this test while you’re sleeping. It evaluates whether your symptoms may be due to a sleep disorder.
Management and Treatment
How is jet lag treated?
Researchers have yet to uncover a jet lag cure. Still, you can treat most jet lag symptoms on your own. There’s a good chance your symptoms will go away in a few days without any treatment.
Making healthy choices may help jet lag symptoms go away sooner. After you arrive at your destination:
- Get some sun: Getting outside during daylight hours can jump-start alertness. Light helps your body recognize it’s time to be awake. Artificial light sources (such as a lamp) can offer similar benefits if you can’t get outside.
- Adjust your sleep-wake schedule: Getting on the sleep-wake schedule at your destination quickly may help with jet lag symptoms.
- Focus on getting quality sleep: Sleeping on the plane, if you can, may help your body adjust faster to a new time zone. You may want to ask your provider about the benefits and risks of over-the-counter sleep aids, such as melatonin. Prescription-strength sleeping pills may have more downsides than benefits when it comes to treating jet lag. Talk with your provider about your needs.
- Avoid new foods: Choosing foods your body knows how to digest (for a day or two) may help ease any digestive symptoms of jet lag.
- Drink lots of water: Drinking plenty of water can combat the effects of dehydration after a long flight. Choose bottled water if you have any questions about water safety. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can make you more dehydrated.
Does taking melatonin work for jet lag?
Research remains unclear on the potential benefits or safety of taking melatonin to treat jet lag symptoms. Melatonin is a hormone your body makes naturally to promote sleep. It’s also available as a supplement in various strengths. Your provider can help you understand the pros and cons of taking an over-the-counter melatonin supplement for jet lag, including how it may affect you.
How can I prevent jet lag?
Unfortunately, no prevention strategy can guarantee you won’t experience jet lag. But many steps can help minimize jet lag’s potential impact on you.
Start preparing for schedule changes before you travel
In the days before your trip, slowly adjust your meal schedule to match when you’ll be eating at your destination.
If you’re traveling east to west, go to bed later and wake up later for several days before departure. If you’re traveling from west to east, go to bed earlier and wake up earlier to help your body adjust to new sleep patterns.
Move your body on the plane
Keeping your body moving during your flight may reduce jet lag symptoms. On especially long flights, try to move around the cabin when possible.
You can also do exercises while sitting in your seat. Try:
- Breathing deeply.
- Rolling your feet.
- Raising your knees.
- Turning your head.
- Swinging your arms overhead.
- Contracting (tensing) and relaxing your leg muscles.
Outlook / Prognosis
When will jet lag go away?
How long jet lag lasts will depend on several factors. These include how far you traveled, your body’s unique rhythms and your overall health. Many people who experience jet lag feel better a few days after arriving to their destination. For some people, it can take up to one week to feel fully back to themselves.
When should I call the doctor?
Call your healthcare provider if jet lag symptoms don’t go away or get worse more than one week after traveling.
You should also reach out to your provider if you have any concerning symptoms that are unlikely to be caused by jet lag, including:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Jet lag is a common problem. People of all ages can experience it while traveling long distances (more than two time zone changes) by plane. You may feel minor to moderate sleep disturbances or other symptoms as your body adjusts to a new sleep-wake cycle at your destination. It’s possible to have no jet lag symptoms when traveling. Preparing your body for expected routine changes and making healthy choices on your trip may minimize how jet lag impacts you.
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