What is jet lag?
Jet lag happens when your sleep rhythms are disturbed after you've been on a long flight and travelled quickly through multiple time zones.
Jet lag affects everybody, but it can become more of a problem as you get older because you take longer to recover. It can be worse the more time zones you travel through, especially if you travel east. As a general rule, it takes about a day to recover for each time zone you go through.
What are the symptoms of jet lag?
The main symptom of jet lag is that you feel very tired during the day and find it hard to sleep at night.
Other common symptoms include:
- changed bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhoea
- difficulty concentrating
- not being as alert as normal
- not feeling very well
- feeling low
The symptoms will gradually get better as your body adjusts to the new time zone. It’s important to take care when driving if you have jet lag.
What causes jet lag?
Your body's urges to eat and sleep are controlled by circadian rhythms – a type of internal 'body clock' set by hormones such as melatonin. Jet lag happens when your body takes time to adjust its circadian rhythms to a new time zone.
If you have jet lag, your body might tell you it's time to sleep when it's only afternoon in the new time zone. It can also keep you wide awake in the middle of the night.
How is jet lag treated?
There is no cure for jet lag, but there is a lot you can do to make yourself feel better.
The best way to reset your sleep/wake cycle is to go outside into the sunlight and do some exercise. If you have travelled eastward, get some sunshine in the early morning. If you have travelled westward, aim for sunlight in the evening. Make sure you keep the room as dark as possible when you try to sleep at night.
For the first few days, take short naps to help you stay more alert. Make sure you nap for no more than 30 minutes, and that you are awake for at least 4 hours before bed time.
Caffeine in tea and coffee can help keep you awake, but don’t drink too much because you won’t be able to sleep later. Limit alcohol too, since as it prevents you from sleeping well at night.
Medicine containing melatonin has been used to treat jet lag but in Australia it is only available with a prescription for certain conditions. You should talk to your doctor about whether this is right for you. There are also several remedies available from a pharmacy. Ask your pharmacist about the best one for you.
As a last resort, sleeping pills can help you sleep. But be careful because taking sleeping pills can quickly become a habit. It is not recommended that you use sleeping tablets during your flight in case there is an emergency.
Can jet lag be prevented?
If you are only going to be away for a few days, consider keeping to your home schedule for eating and sleeping. If you are going to be away for longer, try to adjust to the new time zone as soon as possible – while you are on the plane.
It is often better if you time your flight to arrive at night, and consider a stopover if it’s a long trip.
Make sure you drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol and caffeine during the flight – dehydration can make jet lag worse.
If you take medication, talk to your doctor before the trip about managing your medicines when you travel. If you are very badly affected by jet lag, or if you have a job which means you suffer from jet lag a lot, it might be worth seeing a sleep specialist.
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Resources and support
For more information about jet lag and how to sleep better, visit the Sleep Health Foundation website.
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Last reviewed: November 2020