What causes jet lag?
The world is divided into 24 different time zones and the more time zones you cross rapidly during a long-haul flight, the more severe jet lag can become.
Your body's natural 24-hour clock is set to your local time to ensure that you feel sleepy at night and hungry when you wake up in the morning. This is disrupted when you cross different time zones as your body is used to a regular routine of light and darkness at certain times of the day, so it takes a while to adjust to a new daily routine.
Who suffers from jet lag?
Anyone can experience jet lag after a long-haul flight, however symptoms may be more pronounced and prolonged for the elderly and is thought to be less common in babies and children as they are used to unpredictable sleep patterns.
How to avoid jet lag
Jet lag should not cause any serious or long term health problems and most people tend to find their symptoms pass after just a few days. However jet lag can be a problem if you are a frequent long haul flyer or if you only have a short amount of time at your new destination, so here are some top tips to follow:
Before you travel:
- Change your sleep routine before your flight. It may sound ambitious but if you can then i'’s worth trying to adapt your sleeping routine with your destination in mind a few days in advance. One way to do this is, if you're travelling west, start setting your alarm an hour later each day for a few days (how many depends on how many hours difference you will incur on your trip) and head to bed an hour later each day. If you’re travelling east, do the same, but wake up an hour earlier each day.
- Get enough sleep before you travel. It may sound ambitious but if you can then it’s worth trying to adapt your sleeping routine with your destination in mind a few days in advance. One way to do this is, if you're travelling west, start setting your alarm an hour later each day for a few days (how many depends on how many hours difference you will incur on your trip) and head to bed an hour later each day. If you're travelling east, do the same, but wake up an hour earlier each day.
- Eat right. Unhealthier food can leave you feeling sluggish and fatigued, so keeping a good diet before flying can help you feel happier and more alert. See our Healthy Eating Guide for Flyers for tips on what to eat and which dishes to avoid when flying.
- Keep calm and relaxed. Travelling can often be stressful and stress can make jet lag worse - try relaxing music or hypnosis to keep you calm.
- Wear comfortable clothing. Sleeping during a flight will be easier if you are not wearing restrictive clothing.
- Try to rest during your flight. Travelling is generally tiring so try to rest your body when you can, especially if you are flying over night. An eye mask, pillow and ear plugs can be useful tools for drifting off in the odd environment of a plane. It is, however, beneficial to sleep in relation to your destination's night time, so try to stick to those adjusted timings if possible.
- Keep hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids during the flight even if you do not feel thirsty, as dehydration can worsen the effects of jet lag and planes can be very drying. Avoid alcohol and caffeine drinks though as these will dehydrate and disturb your sleep further.
At your destination:
- Embrace the new routine Eat and sleep at the correct times for your new time zone, not at the time you usually eat and sleep at home. Try to avoid sleep remedies though as these will not help your body adjust naturally.
- Avoid napping as soon as you arrive. Even if you are tired after a long flight, stay active until the correct time to sleep; this will help your body adjust more quickly. If you need to sleep immediately, try a herbal tea and an eye mask to help you sleep.
- Eat and drink healthily. Balance your sugar levels naturally by having a healthy meal with fruit and vegetables and keep drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Spend time outdoors. Light is the strongest stimulus for re-aligning a person's sleep-wake schedule and a carefully controlled level of exposure to and avoidance of bright lights can speed adjustment to a new time zone.*
*There are also several apps and sites offering advice on ways to reduce jet lag. Both British Airways and Jet Lag Rooster, provide a 'jet lag plan' based on your travel plans, advising on light exposure timings for before and during your trip to minimise the effects of jet lag.