If you've been on a long flight and changed time zones, jet lag might make you feel tired and lethargic. It can take 1 day to recover for every hour’s difference between the time at your departure and arrival points. Here are some tips to minimise the symptoms of jet lag.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag is the result of quickly crossing several time zones. Your body’s natural sleep rhythms are disrupted so they are no longer aligned with the outside world.
Jet lag affects everybody, but it can become more of a problem as you get older because you take longer to recover. For many people it’s worse when they fly from west to east, because that means they are moving forward in time and in the opposite direction to the sun, so the time difference develops more quickly.
What causes jet lag?
The body's urges to eat and sleep are controlled by circadian rhythms – a type of internal 'body clock' set by hormones such as melatonin that are released by the brain. Jet lag happens when your body takes time to adjust its circadian rhythms to a new time zone.
It means your body tells you it’s time to sleep when in the new time zone it’s only afternoon, or your body keeps you wide awake in the middle of the night. The more time zones you cross, the worse your jet lag will be.
Jet lag symptoms
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.
How to reduce the symptoms of jet lag
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.
Taking melatonin at night can help reset your body clock. 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.
Preventing jet lag
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.
For more information about jet lag and how to sleep better, visit the Sleep Health Foundation website.
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Last reviewed: November 2018