Jet lag and how to cure it
You’re on your dream holiday to some far-off destination, and you’re excited the minute you land - until the leg lag hits. It can happen as soon as you arrive or knock you out when you get home (or both), and it can take up to five days to recover from. That’s a long time when you’re experiencing daytime sleepiness, nightly insomnia, a loss of appetite, and poor coordination.
So why do our bodies react so badly to crossing time zones, and how can we solve the problem? Let’s start with a little lesson on jet lag.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag meaning is a common and non-serious (but annoying) disorder that usually arises when we travel a long way for work or holiday. It occurs when our circadian rhythm is disrupted because it’s no longer in tune with our environment. Basically, our body might think it’s time to go to bed because it’s 10pm at home, but in our new destination it’s lunchtime and the sun is shining. We consciously want to stay awake and enjoy the sun (and eat lunch with everyone else), but our bodies are begging for sleep.
Other names for jet lag are ‘flight fatigue’ and ‘desynchronosis’, but they’re really just fancy ways of saying the same thing. It all happens because the world has 24 time zones, one for every hour in the day, and when we travel across them, the time ‘changes’ so it’s in sync with the rising and setting of the sun in that part of the world. Unfortunately, it’s just not something our bodies have evolved to handle - hence the jet lag.
Jet lag symptoms
So what does jet lag feel like? Well the most common feature of jet lag is, of course, tiredness (or conversely being wide awake during the night). But it’s not quite that simple. Feeling sleep deprived can put us in a bad mood and seriously disrupt our bodily functions, too. Other symptoms of jet lag include:
- Headaches (often caused by tension or dehydration)
- Anxiety and irritability
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Difficulty concentrating on things
- Poor memory
- Increased likelihood of catching mild illnesses, e.g. colds.
But remember, jet lag affects everyone differently, so two people travelling together are unlikely to have the same symptoms over the same time frame.
Why do we get jet lag?
When your circadian rhythm (the internal body clock that regulates sleep and waking) is disrupted, you experience jet lag meaning you may feel rather groggy until your body adjusts. Your circadian rhythm is controlled by light, dark and the hormone melatonin, and it can be slow to adjust to a new routine.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you’re off on your summer holidays, and your plane leaves London at midday. The flight takes eight hours. When you land in New York, according to your body clock (and the clocks in the UK) the time is 8pm - which means it’s time for dinner, and bed soon after that. However, because New York is in a different time zone, the local time is only 3pm, and New Yorkers aren’t even thinking about dinner yet. By the time it’s 8pm in New York your body thinks it’s 1am. Not only that, but the natural light levels don’t match your body’s expectations, which can throw it into further confusion.
That’s why you feel tired and hungry when the New Yorkers around you seem perfectly fine. Luckily your body clock will catch up in a few days, and you’ll adjust to the local time instead.
How long does jet lag last?
It varies – some people are luckier than others - but we’ve got some ideas below to help you get over your jet lag as quickly as possible.
But you may also wonder which way is jet lag worse – and we can confirm that if you’re travelling west, you might feel less jet lagged and take less time to recover than if you were travelling east. This is because it’s easier for your body to deal with a longer day than a shorter one, and studies have found that it takes a full day to recover from each time zone you travel through.
Six ways to get rid of jet lag
It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s no absolute cure for jet lag, but there are things you can do to make it easier to deal with and to help your body clock adjust a little bit faster.
Change your routine before you travel
If you’re travelling east, try going to bed an hour or two earlier and waking up earlier too. If you’re going west do the opposite. Try and do this a couple of days before your flight so you can start adjusting before you get there.
Get a good night’s sleep before you fly
People often end up having slept for just a few hours before a long flight. Whether it's due to pre-holiday excitement or a deliberate attempt to tire yourself out so that you'll sleep through the flight, it’s a big mistake. Last minute changes to your routine will only make it harder to adjust to a new time zone, and getting a good night's sleep before your flight will leave you better equipped to cope with jet lag.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine
We don’t want to be party poopers and we all know how tempting it can be to get in those airport beers, but try and avoid it for those long-haul flights. It will only increase tiredness and dehydration, making you feel so much worse. Drink lots of water instead!
Try and select a flight that arrives in the afternoon while it’s still bright, and stay up until 10 pm local time. No crazy partying on your first night - you need to get adjusted first. It’ll make your trip so much more enjoyable, we promise. If you need help falling asleep, listen to your favourite sleep app, or try meditation with our very own Simba Sleep Ambassador, Hope Bastine.
Spend time outdoors
Natural light helps your body adjust to a new routine. So when you arrive, spend as much time outdoors as possible. Try eating three meals a day at the right times for your new time zone too.
There are many ingredients that are readily available and beneficial for a good night’s sleep. Expert nutritionist Lily Soutter has put together the Dream Food recipe series; a winning combination of nutrition, science and flavour-pairing expertise to get your sleep schedule back on track.