Jet lag, also known as "time zone change syndrome", is a common problem associated with airline travel across multiple time zones. The majority of individuals traveling across 5 or more time zones will experience jet lag to some degree.
Jet lag is the result of a rather sudden mismatch between the body's own internal clock (circadian rhythms) and that of the environment around us. The body's circadian rhythms usually cycle over a 24 to 25 hour time period and tell us when it is time to go to sleep and when to awaken. These rhythms are reset daily to match a 24 hour day by factors such as exposure to daylight and social cues, for example when meals are eaten. However, when traveling across multiple time zones by air flight, these influences now occur at times different from what the body is expecting, and this mismatch can result in a number of symptoms.
Common symptoms include poor sleep, daytime tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and sometimes nausea. Most individuals can adapt to a new time zone within 2-3 days, however, depending upon the individual and the number of time zones crossed, symptoms can linger for 5-7 days in some cases.
Traveling eastward, as opposed to westward, is a more difficult adjustment for the body. This is because it is easier to lengthen internal rhythms to a day longer than 24 hours than it is to shorten them to a day less than 24 hours. Numerous approaches have been tried to treat jet lag with varying degrees of success.
In the few days before traveling, trying to change your body's internal rhythm to more closely match that of the time zone you will be traveling to may be useful. This can be accomplished by altering bedtime and rising time 3 days before travel. Also, trying to time meals to match meal times of your destination may help. Morning exercise can be beneficial as well. During the flight, staying well-hydrated and avoiding alcohol will minimize some of the symptoms. Then, upon arrival at the destination, minimizing napping on the first day and obtaining appropriately timed bright light exposure (sunlight is best) will help. If traveling eastward, then early day light exposure is best. If traveling westward, exposure to sunlight late in the day will help to lengthen your internal clock to match that of the new time zone. Eating meals at the appropriate times in the new time zone is also a good idea. These simple techniques can help adjust your internal clock more quickly to the new time zone.
Medications to ease the symptoms of jet lag have been recommended in some cases. Melatonin, a hormone made by our brain in response to darkness, helps bring on sleep. It is the best studied medication for the treatment of jet lag. Taking 5 mg in the late afternoon, usually starting the day before or the day of travel, and then continuing it for a few days after arrival, seems to help reduce the symptoms associated with jet lag when traveling eastward. This drug is available as an over the counter dietary supplement and therefore is not well-regulated. If considering melatonin, the consumer should look for a reliable source from which to purchase it.
Other medications that have been tried in jet lag include sedatives (benzodiazepines such as triazolam, nonbenzodiazepines such as zolpidem or zopiclone), to help one sleep, and stimulants, to help one stay awake. There is limited information on the use of these agents in jet lag. Some of the sedatives may be helpful with improving sleep quality, but many individuals experience side-effects, such as confusion, morning sleepiness, or nausea, that limit their use. Likewise, stimulants such as caffeine or prescription drugs, may be helpful in keeping one awake in the new time zone, but have side effects such as insomnia and sleep disruption that can worsen the situation.
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