We often hear among fellow crew members that jet lag is just a state of mind. Science however demonstrated that jet lag is actually a temporary disorder with a variety of symptoms like fatigue, insomnia episodes, upset stomach and drowsiness, to mention just a few.

To better understand jet lag, think about the earth as a giant orange with 24 wedges. Each wedge is a North to South strip and represents a time zone. If you fly across 2 or more time zones, you’ll most probably experience some or all jet lag symptoms. The main cause of this is the body’s inability to adjust immediately to the new time zone. This is due to a disruption of our internal body clock or “circadian rhythm”, which is influenced by exposure to sunlight and darkness.

There are some risk factors to consider when discussing jet lag:

The direction in which you fly 

A North to South or South to North trip does not result in jet lag. You would feel very tired but that is because of the travelling itself. Jet lag signs and symptoms are minimal to none since you are in the same time zone. Flying East is when we get most jet lagged because it is like travelling into the future, so our body clock loses time. It is difficult to adjust to the new time zone and it may sometimes take up to a week. Flying West also makes us experience jet lag, however the symptoms are a little lighter. Our internal body clock gains time and tends to recover faster.

Age is linked with the severity of jet lag symptoms. Studies show that infants and children are less affected and they recover much faster, while the elderly find it extremely challenging to adjust.

Our occupation also plays a great role. Pilots, cabin crew and frequent flyers, although they might think they become immune to jet lag, they actually suffer from the biggest disruptions of circadian rhythm.

Some illnesses and pre-existing conditions, as well as sleep deprivation, stress and the consumption of stimulants (alcohol, coffee, energy drinks, chocolate) increase the jet lag effects.

Here is a list of the most common symptoms associated with jet lag: fatigue, disorientation, feeling very sleepy during the day and wide awake at night, anxiety, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, upset stomach, dizziness, sweating, apathy, coordination problems. On top of these, there are also some more symptoms related to air travel: swollen legs, stuffy nose, headache and dehydration.

The top 3 mistakes to avoid when dealing with jet lag are:

  1. sleeping the whole flight, no matter how long it is;
  2. taking a lot of naps when reaching the destination;
  3. taking sleeping pills – the biggest no no because they put you in a state of comatose which is not at all the equivalent of a good sleep. They leave you very dehydrated, they interfere with the body’s melatonin secretion and body clock and they even increase the risk of DVT (deep vein thrombosis).

Melatonin is a hormone secreted by our body at the time it becomes dark or it is dark outside and makes us sleepy. This hormone production is linked with our circadian rhythm which is, in its turn, influenced by sunlight exposure. Many people take artificial melatonin, which is an over the counter supplement and they claim it helps them fall asleep faster and sleep well. Although scientists have conducted a lot of studies, they weren’t able to demonstrate the artificial melatonin effects so far.

A great focus was put recently on the research of the bright light therapy or phototherapy. In order to reduce jet lag symptoms significantly, the subject in question is exposed to a special artificial light in order to adjust his/her circadian rhythm. This procedure is conducted by using a device called “light box” and one session of 30 minutes is considered to be safe for most people. But science still has to prove its efficiency since there is not enough evidence for now.

The great tips to minimise jet lag and recover fast.

1. Before the flight.

Eat light for a couple of days and drink lots of water. Staying hydrated is essential. Get well rested before your trip. Having a “sleep debt” will only make it worse. Keep in good shape by doing regular exercise and stretching. If possible, plan your trip so that you arrive at the destination in the evening, just in time for bedtime. If you arrive in the morning, try hard to stay awake for as long as you can, preferably close to bedtime. For business people who are travelling just for a few days, maybe it’s best not to adjust altogether. If their schedule allows it that is. If you are a pilot or a cabin crew, there is no way to choose departure and arrival times, so keep in mind all the other tips and adjust your routine according to your overall roster.

2. During the flight.

As soon as you board the aircraft, set your watch to destination time and don’t calculate the home time anymore. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes or try some compression socks. Don’t forget your earplugs, sleep mask, neck pillow, blanket and water bottle. If possible, choose a seat with extra leg room and away from the heavy traffic zones like the lavatories and galleys and make sure your seat reclines! Also, move around the cabin or do some light exercise in your seat to improve blood circulation. Many airlines have brochures in the seat pocket with great advice on how to make your flight more comfortable. You can read and learn even about light yoga practices like stretching, relaxation techniques and alternate nostril breathing.

3. At your destination

Stay local as soon as you land. Go outside in the sunlight during the day hours and do your best to keep busy. Eat light meals since a full stomach will make you sleepy instantly. Avoid alcohol; you can instead have that extra cup of coffee now to give you an energy boost. Avoid napping altogether, you won’t be able to wake up if you try.

4. At the hotel.

It is very important, especially for the first couple of nights, to divert all calls. Tell the receptionist to block all calls to your room and take your messages. Ask for a quiet room and put the DND sign on the door. Cool down your room and set the AC to maintain it like that. Silence all electronic gadgets and alarms. Shut the blinds and put on your favourite PJ’s. And while settling down between the pillows, focus for just one second before falling asleep on where you are. This way you won’t panic in the morning thinking you must have been kidnapped, because you don’t know where you are!

Battery charging… finally!