Anyone who has traveled long distances knows the havoc jetlag can wreck on those first few days of vacation. You may be irritable, depressed with head aching and unable to concentrate.

There you are, the Sun shining down upon you as you gaze at the site of the ancient pyramids outside of Cairo, or munch on a croissant on the Champs Elysees in Paris – and all you can think about is getting back to bed.

Worst yet, a weakened immune system could make you vulnerable to a cold or flu. This could be due to jet lag or a state of fatigue. For the veteran business traveler, it can range from a minor inconvenience to a major threat to performance.

jet lag

Why do travelers flying cross-country suffer from fatigue, gastrointestinal complaints, and shortened attention span just from flying across a few time-zones?

What you might not realize is that several different factors related to travel contribute to the development of the symptoms of jet lag. Understanding each of them may help you protect yourself against their effects the next time you travel. Due to variations in individuals, some people feel jet lag effects more than others.

What is the reason behind Jet Lag?

Jet lag occurs because of a conflict between the traveler’s own circadian clock and external rhythms in a new time-zone. The timing of meals, activity, and sleep no longer coincides with what is customary in the new time-zone. Furthermore, environmental cues, especially light, promote synchronization between circadian rhythms and the new time-zone. Since different circadian rhythms may adjust to the new time-zone at different rates, the traveler experiences a period when internally generated rhythms are no longer in synchrony with each other.

Symptoms that Aggravate Jet Lag

Travel fatigue: The initial packing, getting to the airport hours before the scheduled flight time, reaching the destination amidst heavy traffic, waiting in queues to check in your baggage, passing through heavy security checks and then waiting at the stuffy gate before cramming onto an airplane, is in itself ‘travel fatigue’. By the time you arrive at your destination, you are more than ready for a long night’s sleep in order to recover.

External desynchronization: You leave the plane to prepare for breakfast, but it is dinnertime at your new location. It is dark outside, the traffic is light, the shades are drawn across apartment windows, no birds are chirping in the Sun, and the daily newspaper will not be delivered for another nine hours. You feel disjointed, somehow a little confused, unsettled, and these feelings further progress after you arrive at the hotel and try to sleep when your body urges you at staying awake. This feeling of being out-of-sync with your environment is itself a symptom of jet lag.

Internal desynchronization: In addition to feeling ‘dislocated’ because your sense of what time it differs from the real-time in your new location, you also have to cope with a very interesting, and little known side effect of time-zone travel: internal desynchronization, the disruption of your carefully orchestrated biological rhythms. Many of your physiological functions, such as the heartbeat and respiration rate have their own daily rhythms, which are kept in sync by your internal clock. When time-zone travel disrupts this clock, not only are your sleep-wake patterns disrupted, but these rhythms also become desynchronized, one from the other, which contributes to your feelings of malaise. Constipation and other symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, headaches, and irritability are just a few of the resulting symptoms. It can take several days for your body rhythms to readjust and run smoothly, in harmony with your new environment.

Coping with Jet Lag

Under the normal circumstances, the human body’s circadian clock naturally runs on about 25-hour day. Each day, morning sunlight and other time cues rest our clock by an hour to keep in sync with the external environment. Most people can adjust to this one-hour shift with ease. When we travel across multiple time-zones, we can exceed the ability of our circadian clock to automatically adjust and experience the phenomenon of jet lag. This is particularly true when traveling from west to east, which has the effect of shortening the day.

The best itinerary would be to arrive at your destination in the early evening, local time. That way, you will be able to get a light bite to eat and take a walk before going to bed. The sheer act of traveling will make you feel tired even if it is earlier than usual ‘body time’; you may be tired enough to sleep. If you are flying when it is night-time at your destination and it will be morning when you arrive, try to sleep on the plane. If it is daytime, try to stay awake, no matter what time your body thinks it is at the moment, or catch a 20-minute nap to take the edge off.

Timing of sleep is important, both during the flight and upon arrival. The goal is to get acclimatized to the new time-zone as quickly as possible.

East-to-west travelers departing in the evening should make an effort to stay awake later than normal on the flight. West-to-east travelers leaving at night should try to get enough sleep so that they can be reasonably prepared to stay awake all day in the destination city.

Pre-flight Tips for Minimising Jet Lag

  • It is necessary that you get plenty of sleep before you travel. The effect of jet lag is considerably greater if you have slept less.
  • If you are traveling westward and have some flexibility in your routine, you can try going to bed and getting up an hour later each day for three days before leaving. That way, you will be well on your way to meeting the local schedule by the time you arrive.
  • At least three days prior to the flight day, light and heavy meals can be eaten; at a time according to the destination.

In-flight Tips for Minimising Jet Lag

  • Airplane travel is highly conducive to dehydration because of dry air with the airplane. Dehydration results in diminished blood flow to the muscles, reduced kidney function, and fatigue, all of which exacerbate jet lag. Experts suggest that you can prevent dehydration by drinking one liter of water every six hours of flight in addition to the beverages you drink with meals.
  • Try to avoid consuming alcoholic beverages. This is because alcohol not only affects the quality of your sleep but also tends to dehydrate the body.
  • Being active in airplane helps. Although you cannot play tennis on board, you certainly can stretch, walk up and down the aisle, and even perform some isometric exercises in your seat. Sleep aboard an airplane is essential, so time your sleep period well. Earplugs, an eye mask, an inflatable neck pillow, and a sweater or shawl will help make you more comfortable, and thus more likely to relax and fall asleep.
  • It is best to eat several small, light meals throughout the days before, during, and just following your journey. Eating a big, heavy meal will only increase your chances of suffering an upset stomach.

Post-flight Tips of Minimising Jet Lag

  • If you use melatonin, take a dose of it just before you want to go to bed at your destination. It may help ease the stage for your body to sleep even if it’s a daytime back home.
  • Avoid using sleeping pills because although a quick fix for a travel-related sleep problem may seem like a dream come true, but you may probably make things worse for yourself.
  • Acupuncture has proved effective in adapting the body clock to a different time-zone. Acupuncture treats jet lag by changing the flow of energy along pathways in the body, called ‘meridians’.
  • Napping can help make up for a sleep loss, as well as for preparing the body for a good night’s sleep by taking the edge off exhaustion.