Paging Dr. Frischer: Jet lag

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or have taken a one-time trip to a faraway location, you have likely experienced jet lag. Upon your arrival and/or return, perhaps you suffered headache, lethargy, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, mild depression, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, confusion, dizziness, or even diarrhea or constipation.

Jet lag is a very modern problem. The term came into use when the use of jet aircraft became common. Travel by propeller-driven aircraft, ship, or train was too slow to cause such a thing. When we rapidly change time zones, our body’s circadian rhythms are slow to adjust to the new schedule.

Jet lag, also known as desynchronosis, or circadian dysrhythmia, can have a major affect on sleep and alertness. Distance alone is not a factor in jet lag – for example, a flight from Greenland to very distant Argentina would cover many miles, but fall within the same time zone. But when we travel east to west or west to east, our body still feels that it remained in the original time zone. Our natural patterns for eating, sleeping, hormone regulation, body temperature, and other functions no longer correspond to the new environment.

The speed at which the body adjusts to the new schedule depends on the person, as well as on the direction of travel. Travelling east is usually more difficult than travelling west because the body clock must be advanced, which tends to be more difficult than delaying it. Most of us have a circadian rhythm that is longer than 24 hours, so lengthening a day is easier than shortening it.

Some people may require several days or more to adjust to a new time zone, while others experience little trouble. What can we do to minimize jet lag?

•    Plan for the new time zone by adjusting your sleep and wake habits for several days prior to the trip: get up and go to bed earlier prior to an eastbound trip, and later for a westbound trip.

•    Try to select a flight that arrives in the early evening. If you must nap during that day, do so in the early afternoon, and for less than two hours.

•    Change your watch to reflect the new time zone as soon as you board the plane. Avoid alcohol and caffeine at least three to four hours before your new bedtime.

•    Airplane cabins have low humidity levels. Avoiding dehydration by drinking extra water during the flight.


Upon arrival at your destination:

•    Make an effort to stay awake until the local bedtime.

•    Avoid heavy exercise close to the new bedtime.

•    Consider using earplugs and a sleep mask to help dampen noise and block out light, in order to stay asleep.

•    Time your meals with local mealtimes, and avoid heavy meals for the first few days.

•    Set two alarms, or request two wake-up calls, in case you miss the first one.

•    Spend time in the daylight to help regulate your biologic clock.

What about the use of sleep aids to combat jet lag? While pills don’t resolve the biological imbalance, they may help to manage in the short-term. Test out a new medication prior to the trip, so that you won’t be surprised by an unexpected negative reaction, or by the lack of a positive response. Many find that melatonin or Benadryl helps to get a better night’s sleep (and, of course, that caffeine helps to stay awake).

Jet lag is generally temporary and usually does not require treatment. Symptoms should improve within a few days, but can last longer. If you travel frequently, you may wish to speak to your doctor about medication or other strategies. Bon Voyage!