What is jet lag?
Jet lag is a physiological condition that can occur when you arrive in a different time zone after a long distance flight and have to adjust to a new routine. For example, it may be mid morning at your new location, but your body is habitually functioning as though it were the middle of the night (the current time in your old location). Jet lag can cause sleep disturbances and other symptoms may include irritability, nausea, lack of concentration and difficulty performing necessary tasks, headaches, anxiety and confusion. Jet lag can be compounded by travel fatigue and the stress of coping in a new cultural environment.
Although jet lag generally disappears as your body makes natural adjustments, the symptoms can be unpleasant and extremely inconvenient. This can be a particular problem if you are on a business trip and need to be focused. Or if you want to spend quality time with friends and family. A minority of people may be particularly susceptible to jet lag. If necessary, jet lag can be treated with the prescription medicine Circadin.
Causes of jet lag
Every human being has a natural body clock known as a circadian rhythm. In a healthy person this is in synch with the natural environment and regulates sleep patterns and other bodily functions. If you suddenly cross several time zones and completely change your routine, your body clock will function as though you were still in your normal time zone. Sleep, digestion, hormone production and other biological norms are thrown out of synch. This condition is known as jet lag and can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms. Jet lag should not be confused with ordinary travel fatigue that can result from long journeys, uncomfortable travel conditions, lack of oxygen on flights and insufficient food and drink. Jet lag affects individuals differently and the number of symptoms and their severity varies. Some people barely notice the change in time zones, while others suffer considerably.
You can only suffer from jet lag if you have travelled across time zones. You must have flown from East to West, or from West to East. Even a long flight from North to South or vice versa cannot cause jet lag e.g. an 11 hour flight from London to Johannesburg may be tiring but will not cause jet lag as you do not cross time zones en route.
Symptoms of jet lag
The symptoms of jet lag vary considerably between different individuals, but the most noticeable symptom is sleep disturbance. Because your natural circadian rhythm has not yet adapted to its new environment, your body may continue to require sleep at its regular time. You may feel inappropriate tiredness, have trouble falling asleep, wake up too early, or suffer interrupted sleep. Any sleep disorder can compound or add to the other symptoms of jet lag.
- Reduced appetite
- Lack of concentration
- Reduced cognitive ability
Although the body adjusts naturally to new time zones, the process can be difficult for some travellers. If you have important business meetings, or need to be able to concentrate (or just want to enjoy yourself on holiday) you may need to overcome jet lag quickly and minimise the severity of the symptoms. Prescription medications like Circadin may help to treat jet lag and help your body to adjust to new time zones.
Diagnosis of jet lag
You are unlikely to require a formal medical diagnosis for a case of jet lag and there are no specific medical tests to diagnose the condition. If you recently made a long distance flight across several time zones and are suffering from any combination of sleep disorders, fatigue, nausea, irritability, lack of concentration, or confusion, it is likely that you are suffering from jet lag. You should wait at least 24 hours before making a self-diagnosis because the symptoms may be caused by ordinary travel fatigue that affects most long distance passengers.
If you are suffering from jet lag you can either wait for the condition to pass and try to manage the symptoms as best you can, or you can use a prescription medicine to treat jet lag.
Treatments for jet lag
- Sunshine and light therapy: exposing yourself to darkness or sunlight can help you adjust your body clock and ease jet lag.
- Sleeping tablets: They may be useful if you are having trouble sleeping (insomnia). Most of these medicines require a prescription from a doctor and may cause unwelcome side effects.
- Adapt your mealtimes: Eat only at regular mealtimes in the new time zone. Your body may adjust faster to the new environment if you don’t eat at your accustomed times - even if you are hungry.
- Melatonin tablets: Over-the-counter melatonin supplements (similar to the natural melatonin hormone) can help you to sleep. Our online GP may be able to prescribe you melatonin as Circadin tablets if there are no prior health issues.
How do I prevent Jet Lag?
- Try to choose flights which arrive in the early morning. You may be able to stay awake until it’s time to go to bed in the new time zone.
- Try to arrive to your destination a few days before any important event or meeting you have.
- Try to avoid alcohol and caffeine the day before you travel. These drinks can exacerbate the symptoms of jet lag.
- The week before travelling try to gradually adjust your hours of sleep to be more in synch with your destination time zone.
- Try to have plenty of rest the days before your trip. This may decrease the symptoms of jet lag.
- Try to drink more water, remaining hydrated could reduce the symptoms of jet lag.
What should you do while traveling?
- Try to sleep on the plane if it is nighttime at your destination. If it is currently daytime at your destination, try not to sleep.
- Try to drink plenty of water and avoid caffeine and alcohol.
What should you do after traveling?
- Try to regulate your normal sleep cycle as fast as you can.
- Set the alarm to avoid oversleeping; Studies show that sleeping more than 6-8 hours will not help you recover the lack of sleep you had the previous days.
- If you are really tired, take a nap for maximum 20-30 minutes. This will help you to adjust to the new time zone and will not interfere in your normal nighttime sleep
- Try to expose yourself to natural sunlight. Sunshine can influence your body´s circadian rhythm. If you are traveling to the East, expose yourself to the morning sun. This way, you’ll be able to adjust to the new time zone.
- If you are traveling to the West, expose yourself to the twilight, which can help by influencing melatonin production.