Traveling is difficult on the body. Cramming into confined spaces like airplanes and cars for any length of time makes most of us feel stiff and sore by journey’s end. Meals can be irregular and, if you’re not careful, not as balanced as they would be at home. But for many of us, the worst part of long-distance travel is jet lag. Your body may have moved to a new place, but your vitality may feel like it’s stuck in Customs.
By definition, jet lag is a temporary sleep problem that occurs when your internal body clock (circadian rhythm) is out of sync with your new time zone. When you travel quickly across multiple time zones, the signals your body clock sends to either keep you awake or send you to sleep can get confused. The more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to experience jet lag.
This week I returned to the U.S. from a trip overseas, and I realized that traveling west is much easier for me than traveling east. When I arrived in London it took me several days to get back to feeling my best and having a regular night’s sleep. Coming home to the U.S., I recovered in a day. According to the Sleep Foundation, that’s because it’s generally easier to delay your internal clock (what happens when you travel westward) than advance it (what happens when you travel eastward). Jet lag doesn’t occur on north-south flights, which don’t cross multiple time zones.
Not everyone who takes a long-distance flight gets jet lag. The severity and likelihood of experiencing jet lag depends on a number of factors: total distance, number of time zones crossed, direction of travel, stress and how you were sleeping before your trip are just a few. Some people report a kind of hunger lag, which is similar to jet lag: they get hungry at the times that are equivalent to their meals at home. A friend of mine finds that, when she travels west, she’s craving lunch by midmorning and dinner by 4 PM.
Common symptoms of jet lag can include:
- Sleeping problems – it may be more difficult to fall asleep when you want to or you may wake up earlier than you planned.
- Daytime fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings
- Lack of appetite
- Stomach problems like constipation or diarrhea.
These symptoms shouldn’t last more than a few days, thankfully. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to minimize jet lag, both during your flight and once you land.
During your flight: Take care of your body by keeping it well hydrated. Airplane air is very dehydrating—that alone can cause you to feel fatigued. Alcohol is dehydrating as well, so limit your intake if you indulge at all. Baby your stomach by avoiding heavy greasy airline meals. Pick up a healthy, light meal with plenty of fruits and veggies if you can find one in the airport. In addition, make a point of moving around. If you can, opt for the aisle seat and walk around every hour. Gentle stretches also make a difference. You can load some airplane exercises into your phone at https://www.thebluewalk.com/exercises-you-can-do-in-your-airplane-seat-while-traveling/. Just make sure the person seated next to you doesn’t mind!
Once you arrive: Once you arrive at your destination, stay on the local schedule. Try to sync eating and sleeping with the normal local times. In the morning, take a walk or get some other light exercise. If you can get outside, exposure to daylight will help reset your body clock. Also, remember to eat healthy and drink lots of water. Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, it’s easy and tempting to abandon your good habits when you’re far from home.
If you have trouble sleeping for more than a few days, you might consider using melatonin. Talk to your doctor first and don’t use more than 5 mg at a time. Melatonin is a supplement and isn’t regulated by the FDA, so if you do decide to use it buy only from a reputable company.
Jet lag isn’t permanent; however, you should call your doctor if jet lag symptoms don’t go away or get worse more than a week after traveling.
People of all ages can experience jet lag while traveling long distances by plane. Making healthy choices and preparing your body for expected schedule changes may minimize how it affects you.