Air travel is amazing for a number of reasons – you can hop on a plane in California one day and hop off in Madagascar the next, having traveled 11,000 miles across the planet. During that trip, you also cross 12 time zones, ending up in a spot that's 12 hours ahead of where you started.
That's when jet lag, or jet lag disorder, kicks in: temporary damage to your sleep patterns after traveling quickly across multiple time zones. The amount of time it takes to recover depends on how far you traveled, but you do have ways to expedite the recovery process.
Damage to Your Body’s Circadian Rhythm
Your body's internal clock is in charge of its circadian rhythm, which signals your body when it's time to sleep and when it should stay awake. When you travel across several time zones in a short period of time, your circadian rhythm remains synced to the time zone in your original location, and your destination's time zone might not match up.
Though your body will, inevitably, adjust eventually, jet lag can take its toll on your travel plans – for example, it'd be tough to enjoy an afternoon in Madagascar if 2 p.m. there feels like 2 a.m. to your body. The influence of sunlight plays one of the biggest roles in jet lag, because it largely determines your circadian rhythm. Sunlight influences how your body regulates melatonin, a hormone that works to synchronize cells through the body.
Jet Lag Influencers
In low light, an area of your brain called the hypothalamus signals the pineal gland, also in the brain, to release melatonin. This helps your body sleep. During daylight hours, the hypothalamus reverses its signal, and the pineal gland slows melatonin production.
Cabin pressure and the atmosphere in airplanes also may play a role in jet lag, regardless of how many time zones you cross in flight. Air cabins pressurized to 8,000 feet may lower oxygen levels in your blood, causing feelings of discomfort. Moreover, people don't move around much on airplanes, which may also contribute to jet lag.
Finally, humidity levels are particularly low in airplane cabins, so it's easier to become dehydrated if you don't make a concerted effort to drink enough water on the plane. Dehydration can further exacerbate jet lag symptoms.
Jet Lag side effects
Symptoms of jet lag generally include:
- Disturbed sleep (including excessive sleepiness, early waking and insomnia)
- Fatigue during the day
- Difficulty functioning and concentrating as usual
- Constipation, diarrhea and other stomach problems
- General feeling of being unwell
- Mood swings
Travelers should take care when driving if they are experiencing jet lag, and those who travel frequently might consider seeing a sleep specialist to cope with any long-term effects. Symptoms often hit frequent flyers and older adults more heavily than other travelers.
How Long It Lasts
The more time zones you cross during your travels, as a general rule, you can expect jet lag to last longer, especially if you traveled from west to east. The rule of thumb for jet lag recovery is that it takes one to two days to recover for each time zone crossed – so, for your California-to-Madagascar trip, you could expect to recover in 12 to 14 days.
As previously mentioned, flying from west to east is usually harder on the body than traveling in the opposite direction. That's because your body is better equipped to handle an unusually long day than it is to handle a short one – in other words, it's tougher to fall asleep when you feel as if you're supposed to be awake than it is to stay awake when you feel as though you should be sleeping. It may take longer to recover from jet lag after traveling east than it would for east-to-west travel or if you have had previous sleep disorders.
If you have a big trip coming up and you'd like to shorten the impending effects of jet lag, start making some efforts before your flight is scheduled to depart. Start by staying (or getting) in shape. Travelers in good physical condition – that is, those who eat right, exercise and get plenty of sleep – tend to have greater physical stamina and cope better with the effects of jet lag after landing.
You can also begin adjusting your body to the new time zone before you're supposed to leave. For more distant travels, this method isn't 100 percent effective – for example, it'd be tough to set your life ahead 12 hours in preparation for a trip from California to Madagascar. However, you can, starting a few weeks before your trip, begin making small schedule adjustments, hour-by-hour, to help ease your body into the new time zone and reduce the length of your jet lag recovery period.
If you're traveling across eight to 12 different time zones, consider building a stopover in a new location to help ease the shock. A few days at a halfway point can help your circadian rhythm catch up a bit before crossing a higher number of time zones. Finally, get a solid night's sleep the night before leaving for your trip, and plan to wear an outfit on your flight that prioritizes comfort.
The preparation continues once you've boarded your flight. Since dehydration can have an impact on how well your body copes to a new time zone, make sure to drink plenty of water or bring your own tea bags to make hot tea, which might help you get some shut-eye on the plane as well.
Caffeine and alcohol also cause dehydration and disturb sleep patterns. As a general rule of thumb, avoid alcoholic beverages the day before your flight, during your flight and the day after you land. Caffeine has less of an impact, so limit your intake restrictions to the day of travel – avoid caffeinated beverages before, during and just after your flight.
Make an effort to move around in the cabin during your long flight, ideally every hour or two. Movement helps regulate your body, including sleep patterns, and promotes mental alertness. Do not take sleeping pills – hot tea might help ease you to sleep in-flight, but it's best not to nap for longer than an hour at a time while on the plane.
Dealing With Jet Lag After Landing
No matter how well you prepare for the reality of jet lag, it's likely to hit to some degree at least. Take careful measures to speed up jet lag recovery once you've landed in your destination.
First, adapt to the local new schedule as quickly as possible. If you arrive in Madagascar at 12 p.m. and your body feels like it's midnight, eat lunch anyway. Make sure to get out in the sunlight to help your circadian rhythm adjust appropriately, and do your best to stay awake until your bedtime in the local time zone. It might be a rough first day, but your body will thank you in the long run. That said, it's easier to arrive at your destination in the early morning and force yourself to stay awake than it is to arrive at night and force yourself to go to sleep and have difficulty sleeping.
If you're having trouble sleeping during the first days of your trip, consider a melatonin supplement or a mild over-the-counter sedative to urge your body toward a normal sleep schedule and avoid sleep deprivation. However, avoid relying on sleeping pills or other potent sleep aids to regulate your habits, and try to adjust to the local time zone as naturally as possible. Earplugs and limited light exposure with an eye mask might also help with tiredness and travel fatigue.