Why Do I Get Jet Lag?
You probably love racking up frequent flyer miles, but dread the jet lag that comes with traveling between time zones. According to the American Sleep Association, anyone can experience jet lag, and 93% of us do at some point in our lives. Pulmonologist and sleep specialist Dawn Stanley Cohen, MD, of Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado explains what jet lag is, why you get it and what you can do to travel to your destination and feel refreshed, not ragged.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag occurs when your body’s biological clock gets out of whack. Our bodies operate on circadian rhythms—determined by the rise and fall of your body temperature, hormone levels and other biological conditions—that follow a 24-hour cycle. These rhythms are all influenced by exposure to sunlight, cuing us when to sleep and when to wake up. When your internal clock is out of sync with your time zone, you’re apt to feel tired, disoriented, and you may experience insomnia. Other jet lag symptoms include mild depression, concentration issues and nausea.
7 ways to ease jet lag
The last thing you want to do on vacation is deal with exhaustion and moodiness. And while Dr. Cohen says it’s difficult to avoid jet lag altogether, there are some ways to make the transition easier.
- Don’t leave home exhausted
Adjusting to a new time zone will be easier if you’re not sleep deprived before you even set out to travel. “A lot of us are busy packing and getting ready to leave, then we're up later than usual,” says Cohen. “You want to get good sleep before you go on your trip.”
- Practice the new schedule beforehand
You’ll also want to adjust your sleep and wake times, depending on where you’re going.
“If you’re traveling east to Europe or Asia, start going to bed earlier and waking up earlier about four to seven days before your trip,” says Cohen. “Waking up 15 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour earlier and going to bed earlier will help.”
- Steer clear of stimulants
Stimulants like caffeine and energy drinks are going to make it harder for your clock to adjust, says Cohen. Avoid alcohol as well. “You’ll want to avoid these especially on the day of travel, but I always tell people to try to and avoid them a couple of days beforehand because you want to get everything out of your system.”
- Take the timing of your travels into consideration
The time you arrive at your destination is a big factor when it comes to the severity of your jet lag. “Light is the biggest cue to our circadian rhythm, so exposing yourself to light in the new time zone is going to help you retrain your brain to the new time zone,” says Cohen.
If you're going east, plan to arrive in the afternoon for exposure to sunlight; this will help phase advance your internal clock. You don’t want to arrive in the dark, and then go straight to sleep. You want to arrive in the bright sunlight and stay up until 10 p.m. local time.
- Stay hydrated
“Dehydration causes fatigue,” says Cohen. “Again, we want to do things to give our bodies the best shot at switching circadian rhythms and times zones as fast as we can,” she says Drink more water than usual and steer clear of dehydrating drinks like coffee and alcohol.
- Change the time on your watch
As soon as you step on the plane, Cohen recommends switching your watch and smartphone to the new time zone. “You want to get your brain thinking on the new time zone as soon as possible.”
- Remember that it takes time to get back on track
“People think that they can spend a week in Europe and when they come back, it will take them just a day to adjust. It takes a lot longer than that,” says Cohen. It takes about a day to adjust per each time zone traveled. For example, “it would take at least four or five days to get back on track when returning from a trip to Europe,” Cohen says. “And if you’re traveling to Asia, or traveling through 11 time zones, it may take up to 12 days for your sleep and wake schedule to get back on track.”
If you are able, schedule a few buffer days after returning from a trip so that you have time to re-adjust before heading back to work or school. And be patient—everyone’s body is different. The time it takes for you to get back on track may be different than the time it takes another family member to recover.