Jet lag – A guide to what it is, why we get it, and how to deal with it


Traveling is a part of life. Whether you want to or not there will most likely come a time when you need to travel for work, vacation, or to visit family. It can really throw off a routine. Waking up early to catch a 6am flight after waiting until the last minute to pack and allowing yourself only 5 hours of sleep makes for the beginnings of a bad situation. But, this is just the start. Once you land in your destination, depending on how far away you traveled, you could also be battling the effects of jet lag.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag, also called desynchronosis, is a sleep disorder that occurs when traveling across multiple timezones. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can come with a whole host of other issues such as daytime fatigue, an unwell feeling, difficulty staying alert and gastrointestinal problems. Any one of these could significantly effect your travel experience. The issue intensifies the more timezones that you travel across.

What is the reason we get jet lag?

The reason Jet lag exists is because the earth is a sphere and light only hits one side at a time. Time zones make up for the fact that when it is daytime on one side of the world it is night time on the other. You body is used to your local time. If you were to quickly travel to the other side of the world, your internal clock would not adapt quick enough to the new time. This can cause disruption of your circadian rhythms. The adaptation to your new time zone can take about 2 days. While your sleep-wake cycle is adjusting, all of your other body functions will be doing the same. This includes hunger and your normal digestion processes.

Sun light, being a key factor in our sleep-wake cycle, has a direct influence in jet lag. A flight from New York to Paris means you will lose 6 hours of normal daylight which will cause issues with your circadian rhythm.

There is also some research that shows the cabin air pressure inside a plane and the altitude associated with air travel can contribute to jet lag regardless of travel across time zones.

Traveling east will also intensify the symptoms associated with jet lag due to which direction the earth is spinning. When traveling east you will be losing time where as when traveling west you will be gaining time.

Tips to deal with jet lag

There are many ways to lower the complications associated with air travel such as the following:

1. Adjusting your bedtime before leaving.

By adjusting your bedtime before leaving you are preparing your body for the transition to another time zone. Traveling east: move your bedtime earlier. Traveling west: move your bed time later.

2. Adjusting exposure to light.

The amount of light and the time you see it will help in mitigating the effects of jet lag. According to  Dr. Smith L. Johnston, a member of NASA’s fatigue management team, if traveling east, expose yourself to light early to advance your body clock. Alternatively, if traveling west you should expose yourself to light at dusk.

3. Tough it out through the first night.

The first night will generally be the worst. Do your best to prepare a sleep environment that will give you the best chance in getting a good nights sleep. If you can accomplish this, your next days will get easier and easier.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia


by Mat Jennings