Managing Jet Lag

There is no specific treatment for jet lag, but trying to adapt to the new time zone as soon as possible may help. For instance, some travelers may benefit from the psychological effect of resetting their watches to the new time zone as soon as they depart. Most people try to minimize the impact of crossing time zones by planning their activities to accommodate the effects of jet lag.

One useful strategy for easier eastbound travel is to take a daytime flight. If a traveler flies eastward by several time zones during the day, they may arrive at their destination in the middle of the afternoon, home time, and in the middle of the evening, local time. For example, if they leave Boston at 10 a.m. on a flight to London, England, they will arrive in London at 9:30 p.m., GMT. However, their body clock tells them it's only 4:30 EST. They should try to go to sleep at a normal time in the new time zone.

If a traveler needs to take an evening eastbound flight, they will arrive in the middle of the night, home time. In this case, immediate rest helps. They should try to sleep for a few hours when they arrive and then try to stay up until bedtime. For most people, westward travel is easier to adapt to than eastward travel. This is probably because it is generally easier to elongate one's day by staying up later, than to try to shorten one's day by going to sleep earlier.

Can Jet Lag be Avoided?

Although the effects of jet lag vary among travelers, almost everyone experiences some change after air travel. Inherent differences in body condition among travelers determine varying strategies for jet lag management. These include good sleep, proper nutrition, and, sometimes, the use of medication.

Avoiding the factors that contribute to jet lag may be the best defense against it. Primary prevention means getting good sleep prior to a transmeridian flight. Since sleep-wake disturbance is the most widely felt effect of jet lag, being well rested before travel can only help the body cope with the inevitable change in time zone. This includes avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, which are associated with restless sleep.

Furthermore, people have explored the use of melatonin as a remedy for jet lag. Melatonin is a hormone that is synthesized naturally by the pineal gland in the brain and is inhibited when the retina of the eye is exposed to light. Melatonin is also thought to influence circadian sleep-wake rhythms, because its effects on sleep-wake regulation are similar to those caused by exposure to light.

Because melatonin is believed to impact circadian rhythm, taking melatonin at bedtime may advance one's biological clock, that is, advance the body's need for sleep. Although travelers often claim benefit from its use, the use of melatonin has not been studied extensively and, at this time, is not largely recommended for jet lag therapy. Similarly, early morning bright light may advance a person's sleep phase and allow them to go to sleep earlier. Travelers who arrive in sunny places may find it easier to adjust to a new bedtime.

Conversely, bright light in the evening can delay a person's sleep phase and make it difficult for them to fall asleep at night. Therefore, depending on the contrasts between a traveler's time zone and a new time zone, exposure and avoidance of bright light at certain times may help resynchronize one's rhythm.

Sleeping pills (hypnotics) may be of limited benefit for the first two days following flight, especially if one needs a full night's sleep to perform the next day. Short-acting hypnotics are generally recommended to avoid effects that carry over into the day hours. Over-the-counter medications typically have a lot of carry-over effects that can cause drowsiness and other significant problems for travelers who must perform. Physicians can advise travelers about what method of management is best for them.

Finally, travelers with sinus complications, who are extra-sensitive to the dry, pressurized, and noisy environment of an airplane, may find it beneficial to maintain hydration, proper nutrition, and proper sleep before flight. When the sinuses dry out and experience drastic pressure changes, they become irritated.

Often, sinus-related symptoms occur with jet lag. In fact, some travelers claim their sinus problems cause the type of jet lag that they experience, which involves headache, earache, neck pain, congestion, and general grogginess. It may be beneficial for sinus sufferers to take a decongestant, as well as plenty of water, before traveling. Alcohol dehydrates the sinuses and tends to intensify the symptoms of sinus complications, so avoiding it may result in less severe sinus-related jet lag.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Nov 2000

Last Modified: 22 Sep 2015