Jet Lag – What It Is and How to Cope With It

Photo by: Flickr
Photo by: Flickr

If you have flown to Europe, Australia or the Far East, or even just across the United States, you are probably all too familiar with the feeling of disorientation that results – better known as jet lag. When flying, jet lag occurs because we are crossing different time zones in a shorter time than the normal time our body’s natural rhythms would need to adjust to the new time.

Jet lag is medically known as desynchronosis and the most common symptoms are exhaustion or insomnia, disorientation, loss of appetite, mood swings and dizziness. For women, it can also cause disturbances in the normal menstruation pattern. Around 70% of people who fly experience some degree of jet lag, particularly the elderly. Children are less likely to suffer from it.

Usually, you experience jet lag if you are flying across at least 5 different time zones; and jet lag is usually worse if you are flying eastwards; for example, from the West coast to the East Coast; or from America to Europe. To some degree, jet lag simply can’t be completely avoided; it’s the price we pay to be able to travel huge distances in such a short time. The cramped and dry conditions of most airplane cabins don’t help to improve things either. However there are some things you can do during your flight and after you land to help alleviate the symptoms of jet lag.

While on an overnight flight, try to sleep if you can, especially if traveling eastwards, although you should not take sleeping pills or other medication to help you sleep. If you can, avoid caffeine and alcohol (which is more intoxicating in the rarified atmosphere of the cabin) and drink lots of water. Try walking around the airplane cabin and doing basic stretching exercises, especially for your calf muscles. To help you sleep you may find earplugs and/or an eye mask useful. Take off your shoes once you are settled, to minimize swelling of the feet. You can ask the cabin crew not to disturb you; you may also be able to get your meal served sooner so you can sleep as long as possible.

Some people use small psychological tricks such as immediately setting their watch forwards (or backwards) upon boarding the plane, so that they are immediately in the frame of mind for the new time on arrival. Some airlines have transatlantic flights that leave in the morning and arrive in Europe that same evening, rather than the traditional overnight flight; some travelers find this helps to minimize jet lag.

Once you arrive at your destination, try to adapt to the normal routine of your destination as quickly and effortlessly as possible. If it is time for breakfast when you arrive, have breakfast, even though your internal clock is telling you it is dinner time. Some doctors say that daylight helps you adjust to the new time – spend as much time outdoors as you can, and try to stay active. If you arrive at your destination in the early morning, try to stay up and not be tempted to take a nap; go to bed as close as you can to your normal bedtime and you will probably sleep fairly well and be rested the next day.

In theory it takes one day to recover completely from jet lag for each one hour time zone crossed; for example if you fly to Europe and the time difference is 6 hours ahead, you won’t completely recover until 6 days – although most people are alright after a day or so. Try not to drive or make important decisions the day you arrive due to disorientation. Flying north to south (for example, from the United States to South America) generally has no effect on most people as there is little or no time difference.

There is no medication or drug that has been proven to completely eliminate jet lag, although in recent years, melatonin has become popular. Melatonin is the natural hormone secreted by a gland at the base of the brain, and is thought to be responsible for the body’s natural clock. You can buy melatonin in health food shops, although it has not been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Most doctors agree that it may help, although even amongst those who support it, there is no general agreement on dosage and frequency.

Various other quirky remedies exist to help cure jet lag, although it is debatable how well any of them work. You can pay lots of money for various pills, medications, homeopathic remedies, doses of ginger, and special dark eyeglasses that adjust to allow let light in based upon the time zone you are in. There is even a ‘jet lag diet’ which supposedly adjusts your body’s internal clock by regulating carbohydrate and protein intake for several days prior to your flight. But in the end, jet lag is a fact of life that cannot be completely avoided – unless you travel by ship perhaps!