Jet Lag and Sleep

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Whether you're a "Road Warrior" who has piled up thousands of Frequent Flier Miles, or someone who is planning a vacation to a distant location, you are likely to experience the phenomenon of "jet lag," which can have a profound effect on your sleep and alertness. Every day, millions of travelers struggle against one of the most common sleep disorders — jet lag. For years, jet lag was considered merely a state of mind. Now, studies have shown that the condition actually results from an imbalance in our body's natural "biological clock" caused by traveling to different time zones. Basically, our bodies work on a 24-hour cycle called "circadian rhythms." These rhythms are measured by the distinct rise and fall of body temperature, plasma levels of certain hormones and other biological conditions. All of these are influenced by our exposure to sunlight and help determine when we sleep and when we wake.

When traveling to a new time zone, our circadian rhythms are slow to adjust and remain on their original biological schedule for several days. This results in our bodies telling us it is time to sleep, when it's actually the middle of the afternoon, or it makes us want to stay awake when it is late at night. This experience is known as jet lag.


Some simple behavioral adjustments before, during and after arrival at your destination can help minimize some of the side effects of jet lag.

  • Select a flight that allows early evening arrival and stay up until 10 p.m. local time. (If you must sleep during the day, take a short nap in the early afternoon, but no longer than two hours. Set an alarm to be sure not to over sleep.)
  • Anticipate the time change for trips by getting up and going to bed earlier several days prior to an eastward trip and later for a westward trip.
  • Upon boarding the plane, change your watch to the destination time zone.
  • Avoid alcohol or caffeine at least three to four hours before bedtime. Both act as "stimulants" and prevent sleep.
  • Upon arrival at a destination, avoid heavy meals (a snack—not chocolate—is okay).
  • Avoid any heavy exercise close to bedtime. (Light exercise earlier in the day is fine.)
  • Bring earplugs and blindfolds to help dampen noise and block out unwanted light while sleeping.
  • Try to get outside in the sunlight whenever possible. Daylight is a powerful stimulant for regulating the biological clock. (Staying indoors worsens jet lag.)
  • Contrary to popular belief, the type of foods we eat have no effect on minimizing jet lag.

According to experts, stress or the potential for stress is another problem that can lead to sleeplessness. Two common travel related stress conditions are the "First Night Effect" and the "On-Call Effect." The first condition occurs when trying to sleep in a new or unfamiliar environment. The second is caused by the nagging worry that something just might wake you up, such as the possibility of a phone ringing, hallway noise or another disruption.

Try these tips on you next trip to help avoid travel-related stress and subsequent sleeplessness.

  • Bring elements or objects from home like a picture of the family, favorite pillow, blanket or even a coffee mug) to ease the feeling of being in a new environment.
  • Check with the hotel to see if voice mail services are available to guests. Then, whenever possible, have your calls handled by the service.
  • Check your room for potential sleep disturbances that may be avoided; e.g., light shining through the drapes, unwanted in-room noise, etc.
  • Request two wake-up calls in case you miss the first one.


The most common environmental elements affecting sleep are noise, sleep surface, temperature or climate, and altitude. Your age and gender also play a part in determining the level of sleep disturbance caused by these factors. One study found that women are more easily awakened than men by sonic booms and aircraft noise, while other research indicates that men may be more noise sensitive. Children are generally insensitive to extreme noise levels. However, this high threshold declines with age.

  • Noise

    We have all experienced that dripping faucet, the barking dog or that blaring stereo next door that has kept us awake. Indeed, experts say the intensity, abruptness, regularity, intrusiveness, familiarity and regularity of noises all affect sleep.

    Noises at levels as low as 40 decibels or as high as 70 decibels generally keep us awake. Interestingly, however, the absence of a familiar noise can also disrupt sleep. City dwellers may have trouble falling asleep without the familiar sounds of traffic. Or a traveler may find it difficult to sleep without the familiar tick, tick, tick of the alarm clock at home.

    Some noises, although annoying at first, can gradually be ignored, allowing sleep to follow. Studies show people can get used to noises such as city traffic in about one week. However, important noises, like a parent's baby crying, a smoke alarm or even one's own name being called, are not easily assimilated and generally snap us awake.

    Experts are also studying the ability of certain sounds to induce sleep. "White noise," such as caused by a fan, air conditioner, or radio static, can often block out unwanted noise and encourage sleep.

  • Sleep Surface

    Little research is available and not surprisingly on how much sleeping surfaces affect our slumber. For the most part, we know people sleep better when horizontal and not cramped by space. As with noise, however, women and more mature people appear more sensitive to variations in sleep surfaces.

  • Temperature/Climate

    The point at which sleep is disturbed due to temperature or climate conditions varies from person to person. Generally, temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees will awaken people.

  • Altitudes

    The higher the altitude, the greater the sleep disruption. Generally, sleep disturbance becomes greater at altitudes of 13,200 feet or more. The disturbance is thought to be caused by diminished oxygen levels and accompanying changes in respiration. Most people adjust to new altitudes in approximately two to three weeks.


  • Behavioral

    Modifying your behavior and taking sleeping pills are both commonly accepted measures used to minimize certain sleep disorders.

    As mentioned, certain behaviors can help your body better adjust to new time zones and surroundings. Although there are no guarantees to a fast and sound sleep, simple adjustments in your behavior when traveling may help you get the quality of rest needed to start the day refreshed.

  • Sleep Aids

    According to NSF's 2002 Sleep in America poll, 15% of the respondents reported using either a prescription sleep medication (8%) and/ or an over- the- counter (OTC) sleep aid (10%) to help them sleep at least a few nights a month. While pills do not resolve the biological imbalance caused by jet lag, they may help manage short-term insomnia brought on by travel. Be sure to discuss the use of sleeping pills with your doctor before you try them. Sleep medication can cause side effects.

  • Melatonin

    One OTC product receiving a lot of attention lately is melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally secreted hormone in humans that affects the body's circadian rhythms. There is some evidence that when administered during the day, melatonin increases the tendency to sleep, but at night, the amount of sleep is unaffected. Currently, melatonin is largely available only in health food stores and is not regulated. Therefore, melatonin is, at present, an experimental approach to sleep problems and travelers should consult their physicians before using it.