You can't wait to go to your sister's wedding and see family and friends. But you're not so thrilled at the idea of the long cross-country flight from California to North Carolina.
You feel fine for a while after you get there. But later that night, you have trouble sleeping, even though you're tired. And your stomach is giving you problems.
You have jet lag.
- Jet lag happens when you fly across one or more time zones. Most people need to cross three time zones to notice jet lag. The more time zones you cross, the worse jet lag may be.
- Jet lag may make it hard for you to fall asleep, stay asleep, or stay awake during the day. It also can make you feel weak, or you may lose your appetite. You may not be able to have a bowel movement (constipation), or you may have diarrhea.
- Jet lag can happen to anyone. Your age, fitness, health, and how often you fly don't make a difference in whether you get it.
- Jet lag usually is worse when a person flies east rather than west. In other words, it will be worse when a person goes from the United States to Europe than from Europe to the U.S.
- Jet lag makes you feel bad, but it isn't serious. Most people get better 3 to 4 days after their flight.
- The supplement melatonin may help relieve the symptoms of jet lag. Sleeping pills may help too. But both of these also have downsides.
You can't cure jet lag, but you may be able to reduce the symptoms using the hormone supplement melatonin and sleeping pills. Other treatments besides medicines have not been studied or have been studied very little, but they may be worth trying.
Melatonin and sleeping pills
Melatonin is a hormone that your body makes. It regulates the cycle of sleeping and waking. Normally, melatonin levels begin to rise in the mid- to late evening, remain high for most of the night, and then go down early in the morning.
Taking melatonin may help "reset" your biological clock.
Suggestions about times and dosages vary among researchers who have studied melatonin. Doctors recommend that you:
- Take melatonin after dark on the day you travel and after dark for a few days after you arrive at your destination.
- Take melatonin in the evening for a few days before you fly if you will be flying east.
The safety and effectiveness of melatonin have not been thoroughly tested. Taking large doses of it may cause sleep disruption and daytime fatigue. If you have epilepsy or are taking warfarin (such as Coumadin), talk to your doctor before you use melatonin.
The sleeping pills eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zolpidem (Ambien) have been studied for jet lag. They may help you sleep despite jet lag if you take them before bedtime after you arrive at your destination. You may have side effects of headaches, dizziness, confusion, and feeling sick to your stomach.
Other things to do
None of the things in the following lists have been proved to reduce jet lag, but some people find them helpful.
Before you go, and on the plane
- Be well rested before you start to travel.
- If you are flying east, go to bed 1 hour earlier each night for a few days before your trip. If you're flying west, go to bed 1 hour later each night instead. But if your trip will last 2 days or less, stay on your home time.
- Set your watch to your new time zone as you start flying. If it's nighttime at your destination, try to sleep on the plane. Sleep masks, earplugs, and headphones may help. If it's daytime at your destination, try to stay awake.
- On the plane, drink water to avoid dehydration. Avoid alcohol and drinks that contain caffeine.
When you arrive
- Try to change your schedule to the new time as soon as you can. For example, if you arrive at 4 p.m., do your best to stay awake until your usual bedtime. Get up in the morning instead of sleeping late.
- Think about light exposure. If you flew east, try to avoid bright light in the morning, and get light in the afternoon. To avoid light in the morning, stay indoors, such as by going to a mall or a museum. If you flew west, stay awake during daylight, and try to sleep after dark. This may help adjust your body clock and help your body make melatonin at the right time.
- Caffeine may help you stay alert during the day after you arrive. But it also may make it harder to sleep at night.
If you have an important event, try to arrive a few days early so your body can adjust to the new time zone.
Other Works Consulted
- Herxheimer A (2014). Jet lag. BMJ Clinical Evidence. http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/x/systematic-review/2303/overview.html. Accessed April 14, 2016.
Current as of: June 16, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Lisa S. Weinstock MD - Psychiatry