What is Jet Lag? Facts, Myths and Natural Solutions

Every day, millions of people suffer from desynchronosis (aka jet lag), a temporary sleep problem that affects people who travel through multiple time zones. “Your body has its own internal clock, or circadian rhythms, that signals your body when to stay awake and when to sleep,” write the experts at the Mayo Clinic. “Jet lag occurs because your body's clock is still synced to your original time zone, instead of to the time zone where you've traveled. The more time zones crossed, the more likely you are to experience jet lag.”

Whether you’re a Road Warrior or about to take your first big trip, you’ll come across ample advice, but some is sage and some is just silly. Today we’re separating fact from fiction with a little myth-busting, as well as sharing some natural solutions that’ll have you sleeping normal in no time.

Myth #1: There's a way to avoid jet lag.

“Jet lag is unavoidable, inconsistent and unpredictable,” says Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to visit every country. “Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't and there's nothing you can do to avoid it, but, theoretically, you can minimize it by staying hydrated, staying on the time zone of your destination and getting enough rest,” he adds.

Myth #2: Jet lag is caused by lack of sleep.

“Sometimes it seems that way, “ says Heather Poole, a veteran flight attendant and the author of Cruising Attitude.  “With my job, I'm either forcing myself to stay awake so I can go to bed at a decent hour or the opposite, forcing myself to take a nap so I can stay up all night to work a red-eye flight.” As mentioned above, jet lag is your inner clock getting confused. It can result in sleep loss, but it’s not caused by it.

Myth #3: Jet lag can strike you regardless of which direction you’re flying.

If you’re flying North to South or vice versa, you won’t necessarily be changing time zones. After a 12-hour flight, you won’t be feeling the best, but that’ll be due to the tolls of travel – not your circadian rhythm getting thrown out of whack.

Myth #4: A good sleeping pill is all it takes to fight jet lag and arrive refreshed.

No, nope, don’t do it. Sleeping pills will make you sleep, and that’s about it. You won’t truly feel refreshed until your inner clock readjusts to the new time zone. That’s based largely on sunlight and there’s no pill for that.

Myth #5: A couple of cocktails on the plane will help you sleep and beat jet lag.

Similar to sleeping pills, this just doesn’t cut it. Plus, alcohol will make you dehydrated, which just makes the physiological effects of travel even worse.

Myth #6: Book a nighttime flight to help you sleep.

“One of the easiest ways to avoid some of the symptoms of jet lag is to book daytime flights, instead of overnight travel,” writes Melissa Locker in Travel + Leisure. “That way when you land, you can simply eat dinner and head to bed within a few hours of landing, instead of forcing yourself to stay up all day with no sleep.”

Tips for a Smoother Trip

While jet lag is inevitable to some degree, there are steps you can take in advance, during, and after your flight to help your body adjust more quickly. Here are some natural solutions to support the switch in your circadian rhythm.

Before Your Trip:

  • Try to slowly start shifting your eating and sleeping schedule to what it will be where you’re going. If possible, set your watch and clocks to the new time to trick your mind into making the switch.
  • Try an app. Entrain is a free app that connects users to lighting schedules developed by researchers at the University of Michigan. These schedules are mathematically proven to adjust you to new time zones as quickly as possible. Light is the primary driving input to the circadian clock, and by recording your lighting history, we can simulate your body's clock and make recommendations for behavior.
  • If you’re flying east, seek out bright light in the early morning hours and avoid bright light at night. If you’re headed west, seek out light in the evening hours and avoid bright light in the morning.
  • Rest up! Get adequate sleep in advance of your trip so you’re not tired when you’re traveling. Go to bed earlier or later depending on where your destination is.

On the Plane:

  • If you haven’t yet, set your watch to the current time in your destination, then do your best to sleep and eat based on what your schedule will be in the new time zone. Close the window shade and turn off devices, or put on an eye mask, when it's time to simulate darkness. Resist the urge to sleep during what would be daytime hours in your destination. Get up and move around the plane if you can. Avoid mindless snacking and drink ample amounts of water to stay hydrated.

After You Land:

  • If the sun is up, get outside and soak it up. “Your melatonin cycles — and ultimately your circadian clock — are dictated by the amounts of sunlight coming into your eyes,” writes Greg Rodgers on trip savvy. “Although you will certainly be tired after the long flight, your first day on the ground is not a good day to spend lounging around the hotel watching television. Get outdoors, stay physically active during the day, absorb sunlight, and see some sites.”
  • If it’s night, head to your hotel room (or wherever you’ll be sleeping), keep the lights low, and avoid using the TV or any electronic devices. “The blue light from screens can alter melatonin production,” Rodgers explains. “A better option for forcing sleep is to read rather than watch television or play with the smartphone. Get out that guidebook and start dreaming about your next day!”
  • Never nap. You might feel desperate for 40 winks, but napping will just keep you tethered to your old time zone. If it’s absolutely essential, take your nap early in the day and for no longer than two hours.
  • Eat meals at normal times regardless of whether you’re hungry or not.

How Long Does It Take to Get Over Jet Lag?

Jet lag affects people differently depending on things like age, fitness, and even genetics, but the general rule of thumb is one day per time zone if you’re traveling east and half that if you’re traveling west.

Bon Voyage!

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.