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Jet Lag - The Curse of Flying?

The term ‘jet lag’ essentially means that your natural biological rhythm, or body clock as it is commonly called, is out of sync. Its is therefore medically referred to as desynchronosis.The reason for this physiological phenomenon is a drastic change in your accustomed waking and sleeping patterns as it is experienced by longhaul airplane travellers, soldiers or also by shiftworkers such as doctors. The symptoms may persist for a number of days depending on how quickly your body can adjust to its new rhythm and during that time of transition, many people experience discomfort and find it hard to function normally.

If you have ever undertaken a long-distance transmeridian flight, you are most likely familiar with jet lag. Contrary to a common misconception, the length of the flight is not the decisive factor in how and whether one will be affected by jet lag – it is the direction of travel that is important. For example, if you were to fly from the UK to South Africa, you’d be on a plane for 12 hours but seeing as the time difference is only one hour, i.e. one time zone, you would not be affected by jet lag. You’ll need to cross three or more time zones to experience disruption to your circadian rhythms (body clock), which manifests itself in fatigue, irritability and insomnia among other symptoms.

Jet Lag Treatment

As a rule of thumb, you should factor in one day of recovery time needed for each time zone you cross. For most people, travelling west to east causes more disruption than the other way around. Scientific evidence suggests that this might be because most humans have a circadian rhythm that is slightly longer than 24 hours, which means we find it easier to stay up later than to wake up earlier. If you are planning on flying to the US, Canada, South America, Asia, Australasia or the Pacific Islands, be prepared and know how to best manage jet lag in a bid to reduce the discomfort to a minimum so you won’t lose any of your precious holiday or important business time.

Why do we experience Jet Lag?

Unless you are a shift worker, your body is used to a fairly regular cycle of wake and sleep, or daylight and darkness. If you are in a different time zone, your body clock gets disturbed which temporarily unsettles important bodily functions which are regulated by the production of the hormone melatonin, whose release is subject to daylight intake or lack thereof.

The world is split up into 24 time zones originating in Greenwich, London, the so called nullmeridian. With every 15 degrees in either direction, the time changes by one hour.

Older passengers or people following a very regular routine might be affected more by jet lag, whereas children or babies tend to adjust a lot more easily as they usually have the ability to sleep at any time.

The Impacts/Symptoms of Jet Lag

Jet lag can manifest itself in various ways which are individually different, however certain characteristics apply in most cases. You may find that your mental alterness and your physical reflexes are slower than normal. Other symptoms often described by those affected are:

  • Fatigue
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling groggy and exhausted
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and feeling somewhat disorientated
  • Temporary depression
  • Digestive problems such as constipation or diarrhoea
  • Headache
  • Appetite loss

Most jet lagged people will feel tired yet they cannot sleep at the appropriate bedtime in the destination country. You should take this into account when scheduling important meetings that require concentration and unimpaired judgment, long trips and excursions, especially if they require you to drive a vehicle. Ideally, you should allow you and your body enough time to adapt to the new time zone and factor this in when planning your trup. Unfortunately, this is usually unrealistic and rarely feasible.

Jet Lag Treatment