Jet Lag and Sleep
April 14, 2022
If you’ve traveled across several time zones at one time, you’ve probably experienced the groggy, tired feeling we know as jet lag. Jet lag can make your trip difficult to enjoy because all you want to do is catch up on sleep. It can also be detrimental if you are traveling for an athletic event or have a big presentation. However, there are ways to manage jet lag so you can maximize your travel experience. But first, let’s break down what jet lag is, what causes it, and how you can overcome it for an enjoyable travel experience.
What is Jet Lag?
Jet lag is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s internal body clock (circadian rhythm) doesn’t align with the local day-night cycle due to traveling across several time zones.
Our bodies operate on a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, known as our circadian rhythm, that tells our body when to be awake and when to fall asleep. Circadian rhythms are heavily influenced by light, which is why traveling through multiple time zones can mess with our internal body clocks.
Traveling in general, however, does not cause jet lag. Jet lag typically occurs when a person travels east or west across three or more time zones. That is because east-west travel exposes us to a different light-dark cycle than what our bodies are used to.
For example, there is a nine-hour difference between Salt Lake City and Helsinki. If a person flies from Salt Lake to Helsinki and they arrive at 10:00 AM, their body clock is still registering that it’s 1:00 AM in Salt Lake, so instead of being wide awake and ready for the day, that person’s body is telling them it’s time to be asleep.
Jet Lag Causes
Remember, jet lag is caused when a person travels east or west across three or more time zones. However, people don’t experience jet lag equally. Some people can handle it better than others, and that can depend on a few different factors.
- TRAVEL TIME: How much time you are spending on a plane, the number of layovers, time in the car, and how long you are at your destination can influence how much jet lag you feel.
- ARRIVAL TIME: The time you arrive at your destination can affect jet lag. Some research suggests that arriving at your destination in the afternoon when traveling east can reduce jet lag versus arriving early in the morning.
- SLEEP BEFORE TRAVEL: Sleeping well before traveling can help a person combat jet lag. Good sleep helps a person feel less tired and they can adapt more easily to the new time zone.
- STRESS: As many of us have experienced, stress can interfere with sleep, which is not helpful when trying to overcome jet lag. When traveling, try to reduce as much stress as you can while traveling by packing and getting to the airport early.
Overcoming Jet Lag
It takes a while for our bodies to adjust to new time zones—about one day for every hour different than the original time zone—but the good news is that there are some things you can do to help you overcome jet lag.
- PRE-ADJUSTING: Before you even leave on your trip, try going to bed earlier if you’re traveling east or going to bed later if you are traveling west. Making that adjustment will help your body adapt to the new time zone more quickly.
- LIGHT: Our circadian rhythms are directly influenced by light. When you first get to your destination, try to get as much light as possible to help your body recognize when it’s supposed to be awake and when it’s supposed to be asleep.
- MELATONIN: Our bodies naturally produce melatonin as a way to signal to our brains that it’s time to sleep. When you get to the new time zone, you can take 0.5-10 mg of melatonin a few hours before bedtime to signal to your body that it’s time to prepare for sleep.
- EXERCISE: Exercise is a natural way to boost energy. Being physically active, especially in the morning, can help you overcome the grogginess of jet lag.
- NAP WITH CAUTION: When you get to your destination, avoid taking a long nap since it can interfere with your sleep. Instead, try not to take a nap or take a short, 15-20 minute nap before 2:00 PM in the new time zone.
The next time you travel across time zones, try one or a few of these suggestions to help you overcome jet lag so you can fully enjoy your trip.