Jet Lag and How it Affects Sleep

Woman with jet lag trying to sleep at airport

As someone who travels a lot, I’m very familiar with jet lag and its effects on the body. If you’ve made any long-distance trips, then you’re almost certainly familiar with jet lag too. After traveling significant distances, we often find ourselves exhausted, out of sorts, and unable to sleep. For many who travel long distances, jet lag is almost a guarantee. But it doesn’t have to ruin your travels.

When you keep your jet lag under control, it is possible to successfully avoid the unpleasant side effects and reduce sleep disturbances. Thankfully, there are easy ways to help relieve jet lag and sleep well whether or not you’re still out and about, or have returned home from your travels. But first, let’s take a look at what jet lag is.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag is a circadian rhythm disorder that occurs when the body’s internal clock does not match the time zone of where you are traveling. Your circadian rhythm is aligned with the day-night cycle established by the sun— if you travel across time zones this cycle occurs at different times than your body is used to, which can throw your internal clock off-balance. This can make it difficult for your body to adjust to the time change, making you feel tired and under the weather.

Jet lag is most common after a long flight when you travel across three or more time zones. This is a common occurrence for eastward travel— “losing” a few hours— but can occur during westward travel where you “gain” hours as well.

How does Jet Lag Affect Sleep?

When your circadian rhythm is in disarray, it can be very difficult to get the quality sleep you need each night. This is extremely bothersome when you are trying to acclimate yourself to a new time zone, or when you return to your normal time zone and resume your regular lifestyle.

Some symptoms of jet lag include:

  • Difficulty sleeping, or sleep deprivation
  • Daytime fatigue
  • General malaise
  • Hampered physical and mental function
  • Irritability, or being in a highly emotional state
  • Stomach or gastrointestinal discomfort

While they share a few mutual symptoms, jet lag isn’t the same thing as travel fatigue. Rather, jet lag itself can be a symptom of travel fatigue— the main difference between the two being that travel fatigue does not cause circadian rhythm disorders like jet lag does.

Travel fatigue can be effectively treated with proper rest, while jet lag requires your body’s circadian rhythm to be realigned with your current location. Unfortunately, this is often much easier said than done, especially if you find yourself traveling often.

As mentioned above, your body’s circadian rhythm regulates your day-night cycle with the help of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin production is done in your brain’s pineal gland, which secretes less of the hormone during your waking hours, and more as your brain prepares for sleep.

When you have jet lag, your internal clock is thrown off by the time zone changes, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Because of this, it is not uncommon to experience daytime sleepiness and its associated effects when your circadian rhythm is adjusting to the time.

Jet lag can really take the fun out of traveling, but it doesn’t have to. With the proper precautions or care upon arrival, you can say “bon voyage” to jet lag and enjoy your travels to the fullest.

How to Relieve Jet Lag

Now that we understand what causes jet lag, let’s take a look at how you can overcome or even prevent it while you travel. You may even find some of these solutions easier than expected!

1: Adjust your Schedule

Whether you are traveling a few hours or a few time zones out, it’s possible to prevent or reduce jet lag before you even leave home. By adjusting your schedule before traveling, it’s easier to acclimatize yourself with any time changes you may encounter while traveling.

If you schedule your bedtime and meal times closer to the time of your destination, it can be easier to adjust to the change and reduce any symptoms of jet lag. Upon arriving at your final destination, be sure to follow this new schedule accordingly and don’t turn in for the night until it is bedtime in the current time zone. Avoid napping after arrival— if you can, try sleeping during the trip so that you’re less tempted to sleep before bedtime.

Another option you can try is the Timeshifter app. This app is designed to help you reduce jet lag by giving you a customized schedule to follow as you travel— this will help you time your light exposure according to your intended time zone and flight times, and will let you know when you can enjoy caffeine, or when you should be taking time to sleep or nap.

I use the Timeshifter app because it saves me so much time and effort when I travel across multiple time zones.

Here is a little video about how many days per timezone it takes your body to adjust to new timezones. 

2: Stay Hydrated

If you’re traveling by airplane, your risk of dehydration is increased thanks to the lower pressure and recirculated air in the cabin. Dehydration can worsen the symptoms of travel fatigue and generally make you feel awful upon landing.

While you may need to use the bathroom more, drinking plenty of fluids while traveling can help reduce the symptoms of jet lag and travel fatigue. Make sure to avoid caffeine or alcohol while traveling though— these can contribute to dehydration as well disrupt sleep.

3: Light Exposure

I always say that light is medicine, meaning that the right kind of light exposure can help keep us feeling energized and sleeping properly. The same is true when you’re traveling across time zones and need to adjust your circadian rhythm to its new schedule.

Strategic light exposure can help your brain adjust to the new time zone by decreasing or increasing melatonin production according to the hour. The key word here is “strategic:” it’s important to be mindful of how much light you’re exposing yourself to at what time, so you don’t accidentally disrupt your sleep by producing too much or too little melatonin.

If you travel more than eight time zones away from your normal time, it’s possible for your brain to confuse early morning light with evening light. You can prevent this though.

If you’re traveling eight or more time zones eastward, avoiding light in the morning and getting light in the late afternoon can help you adjust to such a drastic shift. Alternatively, if you’re traveling eight or more time zones westward, avoiding sunlight a few hours before dark can help you adjust as well.

4: Maintain Proper Sleep Hygiene Before and During Travel

Sleep deprivation can make traveling difficult even before jet lag potentially sets in. Staying well-rested before traveling can help with jet lag, and maintaining proper sleep hygiene during your trip is very important to a good night’s sleep as well.

Where you can, be sure to follow your normal bedtime routine while abroad. The familiar routine should help you adjust to the new time zone and help you fall asleep more readily.

If you find it difficult to fall asleep when you should, try incorporating relaxation techniques or breathing exercises to help you wind down for the night. Be sure to avoid using your electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime as well— the blue light emitted by these devices can inhibit melatonin production and make it harder for you to adjust to the new bedtime.

Depending on its severity, jet lag can potentially take a few days to even a few weeks to fully relieve. However, it’s important to understand when your sleep issues may not be caused by jet lag, and when to seek a second opinion.

When to Seek Professional Help

If you find that you still struggle with jet lag even after trying the above remedies, it may be a sign of a more serious circadian rhythm disorder, or another sleep disorder like insomnia or even sleep apnea.

If you suspect an undiagnosed sleep disorder may be exacerbating your jet lag and ruining your sleep, it’s important to consult your doctor or a sleep expert promptly. They can help you figure out what’s amiss and get you started back on the path to deep and restful sleep. To find an accredited sleep facility near you, I recommend this tool created by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Whether for business or pleasure, traveling can be an exciting and worthwhile experience. Jet lag doesn’t have to ruin the experience of seeing the world— you can still broaden your horizons and make memories even if you are still adjusting to a new time zone.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM

The Sleep Doctor