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Jet lag disorder

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Nov 19, 2022.

Overview

Jet lag, also called jet lag disorder, is a temporary sleep problem that can affect anyone who quickly travels across several time zones.

Your body has its own internal clock, called circadian rhythms. They signal to your body when to stay awake and when to sleep.

Jet lag occurs because your body's internal clock is synced to your original time zone. It hasn't changed to the time zone of where you've traveled. The more time zones crossed, the more likely you are to experience jet lag.

Jet lag can cause daytime fatigue, an unwell feeling, trouble staying alert and stomach problems. Although symptoms are temporary, they can affect your comfort while on vacation or during a business trip. But you can take steps to help prevent or lessen the effects of jet lag.

Symptoms

Symptoms of jet lag can vary. You may experience only one symptom or you may have many. Jet lag symptoms may include:

Symptoms are worse the farther you travel

Jet lag symptoms usually occur within a day or two after traveling across at least two time zones. Symptoms are likely to be worse or last longer the farther you travel. This is especially true if you fly east. It usually takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed.

When to see a doctor

Jet lag is temporary. But if you travel often and experience jet lag, you may benefit from seeing a sleep specialist.

Causes

A disruption to your circadian rhythms

Jet lag can occur anytime you cross two or more time zones. Crossing multiple time zones puts your internal clock out of sync with the time in your new locale. Your internal clock, also called circadian rhythms, regulates your sleep-wake cycle.

For example, if you leave New York on a flight at 4 p.m. on Tuesday and arrive in Paris at 7 a.m. Wednesday, your internal clock still thinks it's 1 a.m. That means you're ready for bed just as Parisians are waking up.

It takes a few days for your body to adjust. In the meantime, your sleep-wake cycle and other body functions such as hunger and bowel habits remain out of step with the rest of Paris.

The effect of sunlight

A key influence on circadian rhythms is sunlight. Light affects the regulation of melatonin, a hormone that helps cells throughout the body work together.

Cells in the tissue at the back of the eye transmit light signals to an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. When the light is low at night, the hypothalamus signals to a small organ in the brain called the pineal gland to release melatonin. During daylight hours, the opposite occurs. The pineal gland releases very little melatonin.

Because light is so crucial to your internal clock, you may be able to ease your adjustment to a new time zone by exposing yourself to daylight. However, the timing of light needs to be done properly.

Airline cabin pressure and atmosphere

Some research shows that changes in cabin pressure and high altitudes associated with air travel may contribute to some symptoms of jet lag, regardless of travel across time zones.

In addition, humidity levels are low in planes. If you don't drink enough water during your flight, you can get slightly dehydrated. Dehydration also may contribute to some symptoms of jet lag.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the likelihood you'll experience jet lag include:

Complications

Auto accidents caused by drowsy driving may be more likely in people who are jet-lagged.

Prevention

A few basic steps may help prevent jet lag or reduce its effects:

Treatment

Jet lag is temporary and usually doesn't need treatment. Symptoms often improve within a few days, though they sometimes last longer.

If you're a frequent traveler bothered by jet lag, your health care provider may prescribe light therapy or medicines.

Light therapy

Your body's internal clock is influenced by sunlight, among other factors. When you travel across time zones, your body must adjust to a new daylight schedule. This allows you to fall asleep and be awake at the right times.

One way to adjust to a new daylight schedule is through light therapy. This involves exposure to an artificial bright light or lamp that mimics sunlight. You use the light for a specific amount of time when you're meant to be awake. Light therapy comes in a variety of forms, including a light box that sits on a table, a desk lamp or a light visor that you wear on your head.

Light therapy may be useful if you're a business traveler and are often away from natural sunlight during the day in a new time zone.

Medications

You can take these medicines — sometimes called sleeping pills — during your flight and for several nights afterward as you adjust to a new time zone. Side effects are uncommon but may include nausea, vomiting, amnesia, sleepwalking, confusion and morning sleepiness.

Although these medicines appear to help you sleep better and longer, you may still feel jet lag symptoms during the day. The medicines are usually only recommended for people who haven't been helped by other treatments.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Sunlight

Being exposed to sunlight helps reset your internal clock. It's the most powerful natural tool for regulating the sleep-wake cycle.

Morning light exposure can usually help you adjust to an earlier time zone after traveling east. Evening light helps you adapt to a later time zone after traveling west.

Plan ahead to determine the best times for light exposure based on your departure and destination points and overall sleep habits:

Combining light exposure with exercise such as walking or jogging may help you adapt to the new time even faster.

Caffeine

Beverages with caffeine such as coffee, espresso and soft drinks may help offset daytime sleepiness. Choose drinks with caffeine wisely. Don't have caffeine after midday since it may make it even harder to fall asleep or sleep well.

Alternative medicine

Melatonin

As a sleep aid, melatonin has been widely studied and is a common jet lag treatment. The latest research seems to show that melatonin aids sleep during times when you wouldn't typically be resting, making it beneficial for people with jet lag.

Your body treats melatonin as a darkness signal, so melatonin tends to have the opposite effect of bright light.

The time when you take melatonin is important. If you've flown east and need to reset your internal clock to an earlier schedule, take melatonin nightly in the new time zone. You can take it until you adjust to local time.

If you've flown west and need to reset your body's internal clock to a later schedule, take melatonin in the mornings in the new time zone until you adjust.

A dose as small as 0.5 milligram seems just as effective as a dose of 5 milligrams or higher, although some studies show that higher doses are better at making you sleep. Take melatonin 30 minutes before you plan to sleep. Or ask your health care provider about the proper timing.

Side effects are uncommon but may include dizziness, headaches, daytime sleepiness, loss of appetite, and possibly nausea and disorientation. Don't drink alcohol when taking melatonin.

Additional possible remedies

Some people use exercise to try to ease the effects of jet lag.

If you want to try an alternative therapy, such as an herbal supplement, be sure to check with your health care provider first. Some therapies may interact with other medicines or cause side effects.

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