Does Jet Lag Impact Your Stress Level?

I’ve asked a lot of travelers this question, and consistently noted that about half of people say yes, and about half say no. Jet lag is one of those things international travelers inevitably have to manage, and something that we either learn to put up with, ignore, or (at the very least) use as a good explanation for our coworkers, family, and friends after we get back from a trip and feel like we’re stumbling through a fourth dimension for a week.

Interestingly, those who admit that jet lag causes them quite a bit of anxiety discover that it’s actually worrying about jet lag that causes them the most stress (how will it affect them physically?  Mentally?  Emotionally?) while those that say jet lag doesn’t bother them often say that while jet lag is irritating, it relaxes them in a certain way — unlike any other physiological phenomenon.   These are people who actually don’t mind having their natural body rhythms thrown off because it is a break from their daily rut of work-eat-sleep-worry-work-eat-sleep-rinse-and-repeat.   In other words, jet lag is just a feature of being on vacation, of doing something different.

Given the varying reactions and all the anecdotes and quick-fix recommendations that abound out there on how to deal with jet lag, it’s worth taking a closer look.

Jet lag results from alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms caused by trans-meridian (west–east, or east-west) air travel.  When traveling across a number of time zones, your body’s natural pattern is upset as the cycles that govern times for sleeping, eating, and body temperature regulation no longer correspond to your environment.  To the extent that your body cannot immediately realign these rhythms, you are “jet lagged.”  Symptoms can either aggravate anxiety, or be mistaken for intensified side effects of medications.  Some of the most common jet lag symptoms include:

  • Ÿ         Headache and irritability;
  • Ÿ         Balance and coordination problems;
  • Ÿ         Difficulty concentrating;
  • Ÿ         Early awakening (if flying west) or trouble falling asleep (if flying east); and
  • Ÿ         Interrupted sleep (to say the least).

Jet lag usually occurs with a change of three time zones or more, and the extent to which you’re affected depends on the number of time zones crossed.  If you’re unfamiliar with jet lag (or just want to explain it as painlessly as possible to your great-aunt), it’s worth noting that the maximum possible disruption is plus or minus twelve hours.  If the time difference between two locations is greater than twelve hours, subtract that number from 24 to understand the “adjusted” time zone difference.  New Zealand, for example, being nineteen hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, would pose only a five-hour jet lag challenge to a traveler from California.

The recovery time for jet leg is generally one day per time zone crossed, although many people (particularly those who travel more) are able to recover faster.  Women are affected by jet lag more than men, since normal nighttime and daytime body rhythms are connected to estrogen levels.  Recovery will also depend on whether your flight(s) are overnight or scheduled during the day.  You’ll typically experience more jet lag if you begin a long flight mid-morning or early afternoon than if you take a “red eye” flight departing at eight p.m. or later (it helps, of course, if you can actually fall asleep on an airplane).

Unfortunately, there are no proven ways to avoid jet lag altogether.  You can talk to your general care practitioner about where specifically you’re going, and how to strategize flight times and sleep hours, to try to minimize the impacts.  Your doctor may suggest getting only a minimal amount of sleep the night before your flight (so that you’re naturally sleepy when you arrive at your destination) or taking a prescription-strength sleep medication for the first several nights of your trip.

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How will you feel after making this trip?!

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