Jet lag disorder is a temporary sleep issue that usually occurs when traveling to a different time zone. Your body is working on a set circadian rhythm, which develops in accordance with the light and dark hours of your living area. This natural circadian helps you stay alert during day hours and sleep during night hours. When you travel to a country where the time zone has a huge difference from your original time zone, it takes a toll on your natural circadian rhythm. This leads to jet lag disorder. It is a temporary condition, and your body adapts to a new circadian rhythm within a few days if it is given enough time to settle.
Traveling across two or more time zones is one of the common causes of the jet lag disorder. For example, if you travel to a country where the time zone is 6 hours ahead of your original time zone, your body will not be able to figure out the change for the first few days. So while it would be 8 a.m. in the respective country, your body would still be thinking it is 2 a.m. Because of this, you will feel more tired and sleepy since your sleep hormones will be activated. The initial difficulty of your circadian rhythm to sync with a new time zone causes the symptoms of the jet lag disorder.
Jet lag disorder can also occur due to work shifts or daylight saving measures. A big reason is that your sleep cycle is set according to sunlight. When the sun is up, your brain release hormones that make you more alert and focused. When it’s dark around, your brain triggers the release of melatonin (sleep hormone) that makes you drowsy. Voluntary changes in natural patterns of work and sleep can disturb your circadian rhythm. In some cases, it has also been noticed that changes in cabin pressure or traveling at very high altitudes may also cause jet lag disorder, irrespective of the time zone difference.
One of the major risk factors associated with jet lag disorder is frequent traveling to regions of different time zones. The more time zones you cross during traveling, the higher the chance of jet lag disorder. It can be a problem for people who often travel for work reasons. Pilots, flight attendants, business workers, etc., are at greater risk due to time zone differences and changes in air cabins. Scientific research has also shown that traveling east can affect your circadian rhythm more than traveling west. This is most likely because your body finds it easier to stay up late than wake up earlier according to the new time zone.
Jet lag can develop in any person traveling to a different time zone, but it is more common among older people than young ones. Children are least affected by the jet lag disorder.
The signs and symptoms of jet lag disorder can vary in different people. Some may have more severe symptoms compared to others. It also varies depending on the number of time zones you have crossed. The common symptoms of jet lag disorder include sleep disturbance or insomnia, fatigue, reduced alertness, headaches, difficulty staying focused, and mood swings. Because your food intake is also linked with your sleep cycle, you may develop changes in appetite, constipation, or diarrhea for a short time. The more time zones you have traveled across, the longer it will take to recover from the symptoms of this condition. As a general rule, it takes one day per time zone crossed.
In the majority of the cases, people do not seek medical care for a jet lag disorder because the symptoms recover on their own in a few days. Therefore, no particular measures are required to diagnose this condition. Contact your healthcare provider if your body does not adapt to the new time zone within a few days. Your doctor may recommend a sleep study to rule out the possibility of other causes of irregular sleep patterns.
Jet lag disorder does not require treatment if you are an occasional traveler. It can be managed by some lifestyle modifications. The best change is to use natural sunlight to reset your circadian rhythm. When traveling to a different time zone, note the difference between your and that region’s time zone. You can try to schedule your wake and sleep hours a few days before your flight with respect to the new time zone. This will help your body ease into the new time zone more quickly. When you arrive in the new time zone, manage the hours in which you are exposed to sunlight. If you have to go to work immediately at a time when your body is used to sleeping, you can drink caffeinated drinks to keep you awake. Caffeinated drinks should be taken with precaution and avoid overdosage.
An alternate method to treat jet lag disorder is light therapy. In this technique, an artificial light is used that resembles sunlight. This may be recommended for those who find it difficult to manage exposure to natural sunlight, such as indoor workers. Some herbal formulas are also used to improve your sleep quality, but their effectiveness may vary among different people.
Sleeping pills such as zolpidem, midazolam, etc., are only prescribed if all other treatment options have been ineffective. Melatonin supplements have proven to be a better option than sleeping pills to treat the symptoms of jet lag disorder.
You can recover from jet lag disorder from a few days to a week. It may take longer in some people, but that can also be influenced by other factors such as mental health issues, sleeping disorders, etc.
It is best to plan a trip a few days earlier if you have an important event coming up. This will give your body enough time to adjust to the new time zone. Also, try to manage your sleeping and eating schedule a few days prior to traveling. Keep yourself well hydrated before and during the flight to minimize any effects of cabin pressure or high altitude on your system.
Our clinical experts continually monitor the health and medical content posted on CURA4U, and we update our blogs and articles when new information becomes available. Last reviewed by Dr.Saad Zia on May 23, 2023.
Jet Lag Sleep Disorder | SpringerLink
Jet Lag - PMC (nih.gov)