What is jet lag?
Jet lag (or desynchronosis) is a temporary disorder that happens when you travel across two or more time zones on long-haul flights and your circadian rhythm is disturbed. Your circadian rhythm, a.k.a. body clock, is the 24-hour cycle that signals your body when it should eat, sleep, or wake up.
Your circadian rhythm is tuned to the time zone of home, so when you catch a flight at 00:10 in Cape Town on 1 January, fly for 23 hours, and land in New York at 16:00 the same day, your body is not going to know what on earth is going on. Your brain will understand the time shift and be eager to explore, but your body will think it is 23:00 and be ready for bed.
This state of confusion and disruption is jet lag.
What is the feeling of jet lag?
Jet lag symptoms vary from person to person. You may step off a 20-hour flight and feel just fine but your travel partner may feel terrible. The intensity of jet lag is also influenced by the length of the flight and direction you are travelling – jet lag is usually worse when flying east.
If you are travelling from Johannesburg to London you will only cross one time zone and be travelling north-west, so you might experience slight jet lag. But if you are travelling from Johannesburg to Tokyo, you will be crossing multiple time zones and travelling east, so the jet lag is likely to be more intense.
Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Constipation or diarrhea
Is jet lag worse going east or west?
Most travellers find that travelling east causes more severe jet lag. The reason for this is because flying west adds hours to the day and gives your body time to adjust to the shifting time zones, but when you travel east you lose hours and your body doesn’t have enough time to adjust to the changes.
Note: Jet lag only happens when you travel from east to west or west to east and cross more than one time zone. You may feel tired after a flight to Paris or Stockholm, but you won’t experience jet lag.
How long does it take to recover from jet lag?
As a rule of thumb, experts say it can take up to a day for every time zone crossed. So, if you travel from South Africa to Brazil it could take up to five days for your body to adapt to the local time. But in reality, everyone is different and some people may recover more quickly than others.
The intensity of jet lag can also be influenced by your age, state of health, and stress levels. A 40-year-old adult with a stressful lifestyle will have a much harder time adapting than a carefree teenager or child.
How do you avoid jet lag?
Unfortunately, jet lag is pretty much inevitable on a long-haul flight that crosses multiple time zones. Your body needs time to adjust to the new time zone and that can only happen once you have arrived.
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do before, during, and after your flight to reduce the effects of jet lag. Remedies for jet lag range from eating cherries to getting outside in the sunshine.
Here are some tried and tested ways to lessen the effects of jet lag:
Before your flight
- Adjust your sleeping habits. If you are flying eastward, try getting up earlier and going to bed earlier the week leading up to your flight. And if you are travelling westward, try getting up later and going to bed later. This will help your body prepare for the time zone change.
- Be strategic about your flight. Try and book a flight that coincides with your normal sleeping patterns. If you arrive in the late afternoon or early evening, you will only have a few hours to kill before bedtime. You should book an overnight flight if you want to sleep on the plane.
- Try to relax. If you have a hectic work and home life you should try and relax the week leading up to your flight so you will be fresh and at ease when you arrive at your destination.
- Get a good night’s sleep the night before you fly. It’s hard to fall asleep when you are finally going on that dream holiday to Europe, but you will thank yourself for getting enough sleep.
During your flight
- Reset your watch when you board the plane. Adjusting the time on your watch and phone will help your mind and body prepare for the new time zone at your destination.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine. A cup of coffee before you head to the airport and free wine on the plane is tempting, but they can cause dehydration and interfere with your sleep patterns and make it harder to fend off jet lag.
- Get some sleep. If you are on an overnight flight, use earplugs to block out noise and an eye mask to block out light when you sleep. This can help you sleep better.
- Avoid watching TV when you should be sleeping. The glare from the screen and lack of sleep will wreak even more havoc on your already disrupted circadian rhythm. Read a book instead if you can’t sleep.
- Eat at destination meal times. Although many seasoned travellers recommend avoiding airline food to ease the symptoms of jet lag, this isn’t possible on really long flights. But if you do eat during your flight, figure out when meal times are at your end destination and eat accordingly. This is a great way to help your body sync up with the new time zone.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration combined with the low pressure in the airplane cabin can worsen the symptoms of jet lag. Drink plenty of water during your flight.
- Avoid sleeping pills. Although you may be tempted to pop some sleeping pills on the flight, they can dehydrate you and make you feel worse. Try a natural sleep remedy instead.
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How do you get over jet lag?
If you find yourself feeling disorientated and exhausted when you arrive, there are several things you can do to try and beat the jet lag blues.
- Don’t nap. If you arrive during the day, resist the urge to close the curtains and take a power nap. Napping will confuse your circadian rhythm even more and make you feel worse.
- Follow the light. Instead of taking a nap or going to sleep when you arrive, head outside and try to get a lot of sunshine and fresh air. This will keep you awake and help your internal body clock tune up with the new time zone. Avoid going to sleep until it is bedtime.
- Use melatonin supplements. Melatonin is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, so taking a melatonin supplement can help your body adjust to the new time zone. Take it in the evening if you are travelling east, and in the morning if you are travelling west.
- Arrive earlier if you are travelling for work. This gives you time to get over jet lag and be in top form for your meeting or conference.
Does exercise help jet lag?
Yes. A lack of oxygen can make jet lag worse, so the more exercise you get before, during, and after your flight, the better. Walking around the cabin and doing some in-flight exercises is a great way to get the blood flowing during your flight, while a brisk walk outside when you arrive is a great way to get your body moving and expose your body to sunlight.
Dealing with jet lag is never fun, and it is unfortunately inevitable on a long-haul flight, but with a little preparation, you will be able to fend it off easily and have more time to enjoy your trip!
How do you deal with jet lag? Let us know in the comments section below.
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