Jet Lag Overview and Natural Remedies

Woman prevents jet lag on flight
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Ever since commercial aviation took off after World War II, passengers have been trying to figure out how to prevent jet lag — and natural remedies for getting over it.

Desynchronosis, better known to most people as jet lag, is pretty much guaranteed after crawling off the long flight to Asia. Jet lag is one of the most common ailments that plague international travelers.

Although many breakthroughs have been made, no jet lag remedies on the market are a quick fix for the chronobiological ailment. Swallowing a pill won't do the trick. In fact, improperly timing melatonin supplements — often marketed as a natural jet lag remedy — can actually delay your recovery. Simply put, your body just needs time to readjust. But there are some natural ways to speed things along and lessen the impact jet lag has on your trip.

With bodies biologically designed for walking or riding a horse, humans were never meant to cover distances as rapidly as modern flight allows. The chemical-based circadian clock in our bodies that tells us when to eat and sleep often goes haywire for the first week after a lengthy flight east or west. Unfortunately, jet lag can make getting adjusted to an unfamiliar place that much more difficult after just arriving in Asia.

What Is Jet Lag?

Crossing three or more time zones can wreak havoc on biological patterns and circadian rhythms. Melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland during darkness, causes us to feel drowsy when there is an absence of light. Until melatonin levels are regulated and become adjusted to your new time zone, the chemical clock that suggests when to sleep will not be in sync with your new location.

Traveling west causes some jet lag, however, traveling east creates the most disturbance to circadian rhythms. This is because traveling east demands that our internal clock be advanced, which is more difficult to accomplish than delaying it.

Symptoms of Jet Lag

Travelers experiencing severe jet lag may feel lethargic during the afternoon, wide awake at night, and hungry during odd times. Headaches, irritability, and a lack of daytime focus make getting oriented in a new destination even more of a challenge.

Jet lag doesn't only affect sleep; hunger strikes at odd times as your digestive system fires up based on your old time zone's schedule. Meals eaten at regular times are less enjoyable and can even be harder to digest.

As our bodies often perform internal maintenance while we sleep, jet lag can actually weaken the immune system, making germs and viruses encountered on public transportation even more of a problem.

Travelers report these common jet lag symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Waking up too early
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of focus and mild depression
  • Headaches and irritability

Natural Jet Lag Remedies

Although there isn't yet a magic jet lag remedy, you can take some steps before, during, and after your flight to lessen the recovery time required.

  • Use Discipline: Time to throw out the otherwise-healthy adage of "listen to your body." The most effective natural jet lag remedy is to force your body into its new routine. Brute force works best. Avoid the temptation to lie down in the middle of the afternoon; instead, wait until proper time to sleep at night. Although easier said than done with all the street food temptations in Asia, don't snack at odd times. Eat meals at set times regardless of whether or not you are hungry.
  • Get Lots of Well-Timed Sunlight: Your melatonin cycles — and ultimately your circadian clock — are dictated by the amounts of sunlight coming into your eyes. Although you will certainly be tired after the long flight, your first day on the ground is not a good day to spend lounging around the hotel watching television. Get outdoors, stay physically active during the day, absorb sunlight, and see some sites.
  • Avoid Chemicals: With your body's clock already in turmoil, adding a stimulant such as caffeine is only going to confuse things that much more. Despite needing a boost to push through that first afternoon, avoid drinking caffeine after midday until you get readjusted. Sleep aids (Valium, Ambien, etc) will linger in your system and affect jet lag recovery well after the flight.
  • Avoid Electronics at Night: The blue light from screens can alter melatonin production. A better option for forcing sleep is to read rather than watch television or play with the smartphone. Get out that guidebook and start dreaming about your next day!
  • Start on the Plane: You can begin your jet lag prevention before you even get off the plane. Set your watch to the time in your future destination, then do your best to sleep and eat based on the new time zone rather than the old. Close the window shade when it's time to simulate darkness. Get up, move around the plane to avoid lethargy, and avoid just snoozing through the flight during daytime hours at your future destination. Resist the urge to eat out of boredom. Remember: The blue light coming from the LCD screen will counter your efforts to sleep—turn it off when time to sleep.

Extreme Jet Lag Remedies

One study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine proved that a 0.5 mg dose of melatonin—available for purchase as a nutritional supplement—taken on the first day of your trip can help alleviate jet lag if proper amounts of sunlight are absorbed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not yet recommend melatonin as a jet lag remedy.

A study conducted by Harvard Medical School showed that fasting for at least 16 hours before your arrival can help to override the body's natural clock. Fasting triggers an innate survival response that makes finding food more a priority than following circadian rhythms. Even if you don't fast, eating a little less can alleviate some of the poor digestion/regularity issues often associated with jet lag.

How Long Does It Take to Get Over Jet Lag?

Depending on age, physical fitness, and genetics, jet lag affects people differently. What you do on the flight (sleep aids, alcohol, movie watching, etc) will shorten or lengthen your recovery time. The most accepted rule suggests that you should allow one full day to recover from jet lag for every time zone (hour gained) you traveled east.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) study suggests that recovering from jet lag naturally after traveling west requires a number of days equal to half the time zones crossed. That means flying west from JFK (Eastern Time Zone) to Bangkok will take the average traveler around six days in Thailand to completely beat jet lag.