Travel Insurance & Safety

Surviving Jet Lag

If you’ve ever travelled internationally or flown across multiple time zones, you’ve probably experienced jet lag.

Sometimes referred to as ‘circadian rhythm disorder’ or ‘time zone change syndrome’, jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder that occurs when you travel forward or back in time. Though it might sound trivial (who doesn’t need a nap after a long-haul flight?), jet lag can wreak havoc on your biological body clock and create enough exhaustion and stress to throw your holiday plans out entirely!

How travelling disrupts your body’s sleep pattern

In Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker explains the two main factors that determine when we want to sleep and when we want to be awake.

“The first factor is a signal beamed out from your internal 24-hour clock located in the hypothalamus deep within your brain. The clock creates a cyclic, day-night rhythm that makes you feel tired or alert at regular times of night and day, respectively,” Walker says. This 24-hour clock is also known as your circadian rhythm, a natural cycle that every living creature with a life span of more than a few days generates.

While jet planes revolutionised mass transit, as Walker explains, they had less positive effects on our circadian rhythm.

“Jet planes offered the ability to speed through time zones faster than our 24-hour internal clocks could ever keep up with or adjust to. Those jets caused a biological time lag: jet lag. As a result, we feel tired and sleepy during the day in a distant time zone because our internal clock still thinks it’s nighttime.” And we also feel unable to sleep at night because our biological rhythm still believes it’s daytime!

Photo by Tim Gouw

Along with being wide awake at 2:00AM. and feeling fatigued for the first few days of your trip, jet lag can make you feel generally unwell, cause digestive disruptions and affect your mood.

Thankfully, there are ways to beat jet lag or, at the very least, lessen its severity. If you want to leave the post-flight haze off your next itinerary, here’s what experts recommend doing before, during and after your next trip across time zones.

Pre-adjust to your new time zone

Now that you know about the relationship between your circadian rhythm and jet lag, you can use this knowledge to reduce the discrepancy between your internal body clock and the clock of the country you’re heading to.

To pre-adjust to a new time zone, experts recommend altering your bedtime (moving it earlier if flying east and later if flying west), light exposure and caffeine intake in the days leading up to your trip. This will gradually shift your circadian rhythm and help you be more adjusted to your destination’s time zone when you arrive. If you need extra assistance, apps like Timeshifter have plenty of useful tips for shifting your internal body clock before a big flight across timezones. 

Photo by Gregory Pappas

Plan your in-flight sleep schedule and make it comfortable

While it might seem counterintuitive, it’s a good idea to be well-rested before a long flight. This means solid, uninterrupted sleep in the days leading up to your departure.

As for the actual flight, make a plan for when you should sleep on the plane (i.e. when it’s nighttime at your destination) and bring accessories to make it more comfortable. We recommend setting your watch to your destination time, a C-shaped neck pillow, ear plugs, noise-cancelling headphones and an eye mask.

If your legs swell and ache on long flights, try a foot hammock to relieve pressure or compression socks. Wear comfy and loose-fitting clothes made from natural, breathable fibres like cotton or wool. A lightweight shawl or scarf always comes in handy for longer stints in the air, especially if you need something extra to block out the light or keep you warm. And don’t overlook chucking your sunglasses in your carry-on to put on before you set up for a longer sleep. Darkness helps the brain produce melatonin, a hormone that is normally produced in the evening and helps initiate sleep.

Add a sleep aid if you need

Trying to knock out a solid eight hours of sleep whilst sitting upright in an objectively uncomfortable plane seat is easier said than done. If you struggle to sleep on planes or in disruptive environments, it’s worth trying a sleep aid.

You can buy sleeping pills, melatonin and natural sleep aids over the counter and stronger sedatives with a doctor’s prescription. If you have any underlying conditions or concerns, it’s worth consulting a health provider before taking a sleep aid on a long flight. Also consider that stronger medications can make you feel more groggy and drowsy, especially if mixed with alcohol. 

Stay hydrated and consider skipping the glass of red

The dry, low-pressure air in airplane cabins can cause dehydration, which will make you feel more exhausted and exacerbate jet lag symptoms. Counter this by drinking plenty of water before, during and after your flight.

As much as it pains us to say, it also helps to avoid alcohol and caffeine on longer flights as these interrupt sleep and can contribute to dehydration by having a diuretic effect.

Skip the arrival nap, spend time outside and get some sunshine

If you have the luxury of choice, try and book a flight that arrives during the morning or day. It will give you the opportunity to get outside and into the sunlight, which helps reset your body clock. If you’re really struggling to fight off sleep, try going for a walk and getting a hit of caffeine. Even if you still climb into bed earlier than usual, you’ll be closer to your destination’s time zone if you resist the arrival nap and try not to sleep until the evening.

Photo by Somnox Sleep 

Material on this webpage is provided for informational purposes only and is correct at the time of writing on 9 May 2023 but may change at any time or from time to time. It is general information only and any discussion about medicine, health and related subjects may not apply to you as an individual and is not a substitute for your own doctor’s medical care or advice. The words and other content provided on this website, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, they should consult with an appropriately licensed physician or other health care worker. Nothing contained on the website is intended to establish a physician-patient relationship, to replace the services of a trained physician or health care professional, or otherwise to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The views and opinions expressed on this website have no relation to those of any academic, hospital, practice, or other institution with which the authors are affiliated. Never disregard medical advice or delay seeking medical care because of something you have read on or accessed through this website. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or emergency services immediately.

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