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Jet lag is a common experience that sometimes occurs when one travels by air. But why do we get jet lag? What is it about? What is the body saying? What is it responding/reacting to?


What is jet lag?

Jet lag, also called ‘desynchronosis’ or ‘time zone change syndrome’, is when one’s body clock is knocked out of sync. This de-synchronicity occurs as a result of the speed in which someone air-travels from east to west (or vice versa) and across time zones. Because the body’s used to its own rhythm/pattern, when it crosses time zones, it’s essentially saying “where am I? I’m not used to this. Something feels different. I’m not sure I like it.”



Did you know?

–        Jet lag isn’t caused by the length of time you travel but by the amount of time zones you cross. The more zones you cross, the more jet lag you experience.

–        Jet lag only happens when you travel from east to west or west to east, not in any other cardinal direction

–        The effects of jet lag have more of an impact if you travel from west to east (not east to west), because the day will feel longer than usual.

–        Jet lag is not likely to occur if you only cross one or two time zones. However, it’s not entirely unknown for some people to be sensitive to just one.

–        The older someone is, the more impactful the effects of jet lag can be and therefore the longer the body will take to bounce back to its rhythm.

–        According to experts, the brain receives less oxygen when a person travels by plane, which might increase the chances of any jet lag problems becoming harsher.

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Jet lag and the body’s inner clock…

Everyone has a body clock, an inner rhythm/cycle. ‘Clock’ because it’s based on a 24-hour rotation, entrained by the sun and the moon, day and night.

The body clock is also known as circadian rhythm. This rhythm, this cycle, is responsible for keeping an eye on our day-to-day, including when we sleep, when we wake up, eating and how warm our bodies are. Jet lag tampers with that rhythm – pushes it off-centre – presenting the body with a different beat so-to-speak, a day and night in a different way than it’s used to.

The body has to then adjust to this new beat (i.e., new time zone/local time of the new destination) in order for it to return to its centre/re-synchronise. Until it does that, jet lag is what’s experienced.

So, for example, if you’re travelling from London to New York, the time difference is minus 5 hours. If you get there around 11pm, until your body clock acclimatises itself to the time difference, it actually thinks it’s 6pm and is therefore not looking to retire anytime soon. You are more likely to feel sleepy much later, like 3am or 4am New York time (10/11pm London time).

Eventually, your body will adjust. However, if possible, try and arrive at your destination during the day as the sunlight is a major part of what helps the body clock retune itself. Try and get as much natural light as you can.


Jet lag and its symptoms…

Until the body can adjust itself to the time zone it’s in, the challenge it experiences in trying to sync up again can result in the following:
headaches, digestive problems, loss of appetite, feeling worn out, feeling sleepy, experiencing insomnia, not feeling quite together, trouble focusing or being quick-tempered.

These symptoms can vary depending on the individual, their age, health condition and the number of time zones actually crossed.


Minimising the effects of jet lag…

Apart from sunlight, the following can be done to take the sting out of it:

–        Drink plenty of water on the plane. Avoid alcohol and coffee at all costs. Consider also doing so before and after flying.

–        If your flight is eastbound, consider having an early night a couple of days before departure. If westbound, consider later nights.

–        Try doing some stretching exercises on the plane.

–        When you get to your destination, align yourself with the routine of the place as soon as it’s practical to do so. It will help your body clock acclimatise quicker.

–        If you arrive during the day and you feel like taking a nap, don’t. With jet lag in tow, if you’re feeling sleepy, it’s not likely to be a nap when you put your head down. It’s much better to succumb to sleep much later, rather than during the day.

–        When on the plane, assume you’re already at your destination – set your watch to its time. Also consider sleeping on the plane according to your destination’s time.

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15 thoughts on “The Science Behind Jet Lag/What Actually Happens When You Travel…

  1. Uh, great blog, except it’s later in London than New York… eg. it’s 4 PM in NY and 9 PM in London, so it’s the other way around- so if you travel to NY you fall asleep way earlier and wake up at 3 AM.

    When you go BACK it’s the staring at the clock at 3 AM nightmare.

  2. Any tips flying from Tampa to Addis Ababa Ethiopia? 9 yrs ahead of us
    Flight is from 1:30 pm Friday until 11:30 pm Saturday
    Thank you

  3. I suffer from bad insomnia in my real life. According to my mother, I’ve been day-night reversed pretty much since I was born. (I have one son with a similar problem, while the other is a “normal” sleeper like my husband.)My husband is a physician and says I have a circadian rhythm disorder. The one silver lining is that when I travel across time zones, I don’t suffer much, if any, jet lag. While my husband is knocked off his sleep schedule and feels kind of out of it, since I don’t have a strong normal circadian rhythm anyway, the travel across time zones hardly affects me.

  4. Great tips 🙂 The trick with setting your clock to the destination time zone works great with me. The brain is so easily tricked with the change of hours. I’ve met a guy from Canada who was studying in Europe but his computer’s clock was set on Canada’s time. He never went to sleep earlier than 5 am 🙂 The same thing I noticed with a friend from Bangladesh who lives in Europe and his computer’s clock is on Bangladesh time zone. He always sleeps during the day and stays up during the night.

  5. Good tips on how to avoid jet lag. I always try and set my clock to my destination as soon as I’m on the plane. Also if I arrive during the day I only sleep when it gets to night as having a snooze during the day just makes jet lag worse.

  6. Haven’t had a lot of jet lag during my last trip to the States. I went from Belgium to Los Angeles, so that’s a 9-hour difference. When I arrived in LA it was evening there but night in Belgium. I just stayed up and went to sleep even after LA midnight and although I was tired the day after, I didn’t suffer from any of the other symptoms. Same when I came back. I landed in Belgium in the morning so I missed a night, but I just stayed up the entire day and went to bed at a normal Belgian time.

  7. I just went on a huge trip, all over Europe and then back home to see some friends across the U.S. and jet lag was one of the bigger problems. Thankfully once I got back to the states I was able to stay in nicer places then the hostels I was backpacking to in Europe. I spent a great deal of time ( at least for me ) in Florida and was able to recover partially from the jet lag I was experience. California to Italy and back all over, it was exhausting, I slept for 2 days but once I was up, boy was I up! I stayed at a nice hotel, I still can’t get over how comfortable those beds were, and the quiet, it was exactly what I needed and with it being so affordable, I could of just stayed there!

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