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A Modern Side-effect of Long Distance Travel

No, its not just all in the mind. Jet lag is a real physical phenomenon that afflicts you any time you quickly cross more than two or three time zones.

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Jet Lag Explained

In the days of trains and ships, our travels never happened too fast for our bodies to adjust to time zone changes.

The modern jet age has introduced the problem of jet lag to all long distance travelers.



Jet lag is very real and can have a major (negative) impact on your business judgment and vacation enjoyment, as well as making the 'back home blues' even worse upon your return.

While frequent business fliers may often claim not to be affected by jet lag, its effects can be subtle (in addition to the obvious 'can't get to sleep in the middle of the night') and may subtly impair decision making abilities.

Jet Lag - The Curse of Modern Day Air Travel

Jet lag is an (almost) inescapable curse of modern travel whenever you’re crossing more than two or three time zones. Jet lag refers to the fact that your body has an internal ‘clock’ that largely determines when you want to be asleep and when you want to be awake – this internal clock takes time to reset itself if you’ve physically moved into a new time zone.

As such, you can fly north or south as far as you wish, and while you’ll probably be exhausted from all your travel, that is something that a simple good night’s sleep will quickly solve. You haven’t changed time zones, and so your body is still operating on the same schedule as the environment within which you have traveled to.

But as soon as you start to change time zones, you have jet lag. It takes the body approximately one day to change its internal time clock one hour – back in the days of travel by train or ship, this wasn’t much of a problem, as your rate of time zone change rarely exceeded the speed with which your body could keep up, but with the modern jet plane, all of a sudden you can change a dozen time zones in as many hours.

The Impacts of Jet Lag

When you’re suffering from jet lag, your reflexes are slower – both mentally and physically. For this reason, it is a good idea not to start driving a car for a day or two after traveling if at all possible - especially if you're going to be driving on the other side of the road as well!

Business travelers - you should avoid any high pressure business negotiations until you have acclimatized to the new time zone. Some companies have a formal policy of 'no business meetings the first day after a flight' but this policy fails to recognize that jet lag can last as much as a week or more!

Business travelers should try and schedule important meetings at a 'compromise' time that is a sensible hour for their home time zone as well as within the business day in the destination time zone - in other words, don't go to a meeting in the first few days after arriving, at what is the equivalent of 3am back home!

'Local' jet lag within the US

Many readers will have shared with me what I consider to be one of the worst jet lag experiences of all, and strangely enough, this only involves a short three hour time zone change. This occurs when traveling from the West coast to the East coast on a business trip. The effect is made worse because typically you don’t arrive at a hotel until very late one night, then spend hours trying to calm down and relax and get to sleep, before having to get up very early the next morning, local time, in order to get to your first appointment – and if 6am is early in local time and probably after much less than 8 hours of sleep, it is even worse when your body tries to plead with you that it is only 3am!

The lesson inherent in this story is that one of the strategies in minimizing the effects of jet lag is to try and schedule your activities so as to work around the time zone changes rather than make them worse.  In the case of the typical trip to the East coast, try and take an early morning flight from the west coast that gets you in to your destination mid/late afternoon rather than a later flight that gets you in mid/late evening.  Taking the early morning flight in effect moves you to the East coast time zone a day early, and makes that first night less stressful, allowing you to more easily enjoy a good full night’s sleep as well.

Time Your Arrival

In general, I try and schedule flights so that they arrive mid/late afternoon, wherever in the world I’m flying to.  This allows for a convenient amount of time to get to the hotel, and then a good night’s sleep to follow.

I hate flights that dump me into a very different time zone, typically after many hours of traveling, such that it is early morning wherever in the world I have arrived.  Avoid these flights if at all possible!

The worst thing to do upon arriving somewhere, early in the day, is to give in and have ‘a short nap’.  Not only does the short nap usually become a longer sleep (!), but you’re making it more difficult for your body to get a handle on what time zone it now is in – your strategy is to start living the new time zone as soon as possible.

Pre-Adjusting to the New Time Zone

Indeed, some people start adjusting to the new time zone a day or two before they travel, by getting up earlier (or later) and similarly going to bed earlier or later. Sometimes this can help, but any more than a couple of hours of pre-adjustment starts to become difficult to incorporate into your normal daily routine at home and work.

I remember - back when I was an advocate of this pre-adjusting technique - one occasion when I was adjusting for an upcoming trip to the UK such that I was getting up at 4am and at work by 5am. I scheduled a job interview with an applicant for 6am, and he duly showed up at that ungodly hour, looking only slightly the worse for wear. I gave him the job!

On a more serious note, I no longer get quite so obsessed about pre-adjusting to time zones; indeed I think one of the most important antidotes to jet lag is to commence your travels well-rested, so that you have a supply of energy to draw upon.

Maintain Your Home Time Zone

The opposite approach is to ignore the new time zone entirely and to continue to live your life as if you were in your old time zone when at your destination, or, alternatively, to only slowly shift into the new time zone once you have arrived.

This might work for some business travelers and small shifts of time zones, but vacationers are more likely to want to quickly adjust to the local times for local meals, opening hours, tour commencement times, etc.

Some business travelers who make short trips around the world have become quite adept at scheduling their time so as to minimize the apparent time zone change by concentrating on early morning or late afternoon meetings.

Traveling West is Easier than East

It is easier to adjust to a new time zone if you are traveling west rather than east.

The reason for this is that the body’s internal clock runs slightly longer than 24 hours – this is why people tend to find it easier to stay up a bit later at night and want to sleep in a bit more each morning. When you’re traveling westwards, you have extra time you need to absorb, and the body’s natural mechanism is better at absorbing extra time.

This was most clearly demonstrated to me on a wonderful trans-Atlantic cruise on the QE2 from Britain to the US. It was a five day and five night cruise , and we crossed five time zones, so each day was 25 hours instead of 24. We could stay up late each night, sleep in a bit, and still get up at a ‘sensible hour’! A very civilized way of traveling indeed (and I suspect that an east bound trip, with a series of short days, with successively earlier mornings and nights, would be vastly less pleasant).

Time Your Medications

One final comment about jet lag before we focus, next week, on how to ‘beat’ it. If you’re taking some types of prescription medicines (such as oral contraceptives or perhaps insulin) be sure to keep the time interval between doses reasonably constant, even if the actual time on your watch is different. Change the time you take these things by one or two hours a day until you’re back to the ‘normal’ time.

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Originally published 10 May 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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