What is jet lag? Symptoms, duration and remedies

November 16, 2020 7 mins read
What is jet lag? Symptoms, duration and remedies

If you’re a frequent flyer, then we’re sure you know all about jet lag symptoms. You step off the plane in a foreign place full of excitement after a long flight. But then, Woah! Post-flight fatigue hits full-frontal. Hello, jet lag!

Wouldn’t it be nice to explore this new land feeling fresh, without that familiar feeling of being hungover? (Even though you know it’s due to lack of sleep and not the drinks trolley).

They say that travelling east is a beast and west is the best, but what can you do (despite your lateral travel route) to maintain a level head, and make the most of your trip?

Let’s explore what jet lag means, what it’s really doing to your body and how you can help lessen its effect.

What is jet lag?

Jet lag is a symptom of a disrupted body clock which happens when you are travelling across different timezones. In each 24-hour cycle, your blood pressure, body temperature and hormone levels fluctuate as your circadian rhythm takes its cues from natural light, slowing you down for sleep or waking you up for the day.

Due to the movement of the earth, you’re exposed to the same daytime light each day to keep you in sync. However, when you travel across timezones by plane, you’re speeding up your intake of light (or dark), causing your circadian rhythm to get confused as your body is still programmed to the daily light patterns of your departure point.

Jet lag is particularly symptomatic when you’re travelling latitudinally as you would either be travelling with the sun or against it. But what is better, you ask?

Travelling east (against the sun/into the night) is the most disruptive to your sleep. When you would usually be awake has now turned into nighttime, and your body clock still hasn’t taken its cue from its new location. When travelling west (into the sun/day) you may find that you’re awake earlier, but it won’t take as long to adjust to a new routine.

Common symptoms

For most people, symptoms of jet lag are mild and replicate the feeling of being hungover. They can last for a couple of hours or several days, depending on how many timezones you crossed or how long your flight was.

The most common symptoms of jet lag are:

  • Body fatigue and tiredness
  • Feeling drowsy
  • Increased irritability
  • Feeling disoriented or confused
  • Lethargic
  • Upset stomach issues such as diarrhoea
  • Being overly sleepy
  • Bouts of insomnia

There are other symptoms which are less common and can be caused by the cabin environment of your flight, such as suffering from a fever, vomiting or catching a virus. As your body is already feeling rundown, it’s possible to catch other lurgies that travellers may have brought on board. If you’re sick for more than 24 hours, find the nearest doctor to help.

How long does it last?

The general rule of thumb to figure out how long your jet lag will last is to add one day for each timezone crossed.

But that’s if you’re travelling east.

When you travel west you can divide the timezones you cross by two-thirds as your body takes quicker to recover when travelling this way.

For example:

  • London to New York (east is a beast): 5 timezones = 5 days of recovery.
  • New York to London (west is best): 5 timezones = 3 days of recovery.

The more timezones you cross, the longer it will take to recover.

Is there a cure for jet lag?

Curing jet lag completely is somewhat impossible, after all, you’re dealing with your body’s natural clock that’s taken a lifetime to operate, and all it wants is to get some sleep and reboot. However, there are some options you can try to help alleviate the symptoms you’re feeling, especially if they’re messing with your travel diary or sightseeing plans.

  • Get into the sunshine at your new location. This is a sure way to tell your body that it’s time to be awake and let your body clock reset.
  • Try taking melatonin. Melatonin is the natural hormone your body produces to signal it’s time for sleep. You can take melatonin supplements to trigger these hormones to help you get to sleep, which can help your body clock reset faster.
  • Take sleeping pills. If you know that you experience insomnia when you travel you may want to talk to your doctor about the effects of sleeping pills.
  • Say “no” to the hunger cues. When you’re tired, your body seeks energy so you’ll probably be headed straight for the nearest takeaway. However, it has been found that if you starve off these hunger cues until the regular mealtime at your new timezone, this can help sync your body clock back into normality.
  • Set up a relaxing sleep routine. Run a hot bath, listen to some guided sleep meditation and drink some soothing sleep tea. You want to help signal your body to wind down and fall asleep faster.
  • Try light therapy. If all else fails and you still feel like the walking dead seek out this light treatment. The artificial light acts as the sun’s cues which can reboot your body clock.

Can you prevent jet lag?

If you’re prone to experiencing jet lag we’ve selected a few ways to help you prepare for your flight and alleviate some of the fatigue at the other end.

  • Get some shut-eye mid-air. We know it’s hard, especially in economy class. But if you’re travelling east, this can really help set your rhythm. Get those earplugs in and those eye masks on.
  • If it’s nighttime at your destination, keep yourself awake on the plane until you land. You’ll never hear us repeat this, but go ahead and enjoy all the screen time you want to (to keep you awake). When you land, go to sleep, and use your first night as a kickstart for your body clock.
  • Plan your flight to land in the evening. Where we know it’s not always easy to do, this can help set you up for sleep as you land.
  • Have a power nap. This is only if your new bedtime is much later. Aim for a quick 15-20 minute nap to reboot your brain but time it before 3 pm as to not interfere with your sleep later on.
  • Schedule in jet lag days. If you have the luxury, leave a few days on either side of your trip to get accustomed to the timezone. This can be especially useful if you have a work function and need to be firing on all cylinders.
  • Adjust your sleep schedule. A few days before take-off, start adjusting your sleep schedule to match your arrival destination. However, this should be done within reason, depending on the time difference. You don’t want to be sleep deprived before you’ve even arrived.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine. Any stimulants during your flight (unless used strategically to keep you awake) can interfere with your body clock at the other end and can make symptoms of jet lag worse. Recovering from a hangover when you’re already feeling hungover sounds horrendous, doesn’t it?
  • Eat consciously. The dry air of the cabin can make you feel dehydrated, so avoid any salty or sugary foods during the flight. Drink lots of water, and fuel your body with healthier food options.
  • Lunges in the isle. Get up often during the flight and move your body. This can help you sleep better.

As much as these preventative jet lag strategies can help, it’s up to you to make sure that when you’ve reached your destination, you’re keeping up a consistent sleep routine to get your sleep cycle back in sync.

Remember, each country has its own laws around supplements and medicated sleep aids, so try to get to sleep naturally and say goodbye to jet lag.