Why we have jet lags and how to cope with them

Dealing with jet lag is one of the ultimate challenges for frequent flyers. Even if you’re only away for a few days – whether it be for business or pleasure – jet lag can keep you up at night and feeling drowsy during the day. But what exactly happens to your body when you experience jet lag? And what can you do about it?

Which is worse: traveling east or west?

Jet lag hits me really hard when I’m travelling eastbound, cutting my days short. You go to bed not feeling tired at all, and you want to fall asleep during those important meetings in the afternoon!

Traveling westbound, days become longer and most people find it easier to adjust. It’s like having a late night out and sleeping in during daytime. Which means evening meetings can be a problem.

LINKAD-Boeing&Boeing-JetlagSleeping patterns

So why do we experience jet lag? Our sleep patterns have a circadian rhythm. Every night, we go through five cycles that each last 90-120 minutes, depending on your body’s needs. This also explains why some people need more sleep than others, because the length of each cycle varies from person to person. All cycles have the same structure. To get good quality sleep, you have to go through at least the first three cycles.

Each cycle is divided into different phases. The first two are light sleep phases. These are followed by the third phase, the so-called deep sleep phase. During the final phase, characterised by Rapid Eye Movement (REM), we dream.

Different sleep cycles

The deep sleep phases and dream phase of the first three cycles are the most important, contributing to both physical and mental health. Jet lag is a temporary disorder of the circadian rhythm, in which the sleeping pattern needs to be synchronised to the new time zone. The effects vary depending on the number of time zones you cross. You will experience hardly any symptoms if you cross one or two time zones. However, if you fly eastbound and cross six time zones, you will need at least six days to adjust to the new time zone. Flying westbound, you will need at least three days to adjust.

People tend to be either morning or evening people, while others are somewhere in the middle and can deal with both. In general, evening people find it easier to adjust to westbound travel, while morning people find it easier traveling eastbound.

Sleeping aids

Most sleeping tablets shorten the deep sleep phase and prolong the light phase. This is one reason why you should try to avoid taking this type of medication.

Melatonin is widely used as a remedy for jet lag. In some countries, you can buy it over the counter. When using melatonin, it is important that you should know a little more about your own circadian rhythm. Because if you don’t administer it according to your own sleeping pattern, it may not only be ineffective, but may even result in contrary effects.

OSTRICH PILLOW_Studio Banana THiNGS_kawamura-ganjavian_02

Jet lag basically upsets your biorhythm by mixing up your circadian sleep pattern. Knowing more about your own sleeping pattern can help you prevent most symptoms of jet lag. Keeping a log book and recording your sleeping behaviour can be helpful. When do you usually go to sleep? How many hours do you sleep? What time do you wake up? Do you have a lie-in? All these questions will help you find out more about your own sleep pattern. Check this site for more information.

How to cope with jet lag

  1. Travel safe, relaxed and calm. Stress will make you agitated and will intensify jet lag symptoms such as sleepiness during daytime, hunger at night, loss of memory and problems falling asleep.
  2. When I’m aboard the plane, ready for take-off, I immediately set my watch to the local time at my destination. I eat during normal mealtimes at the local destination, even if I’m not hungry. Always avoid heavy meals.
  3. Stay in shape and exercise! You don’t have to go for a full workout, just move. Go out for a walk when you arrive. And if you’re feeling really optimistic and you have the time, head to the local gym or take a yoga class.
  4. Daylight influences melatonin levels and delays sleepiness, which can be helpful. Never go straight to bed on arrival in the morning (especially when travelling eastbound), but try to adjust to the local time zone.
  5. Avoid or minimise drinking alcoholic, especially aboard the plane. Drink non-carbonated beverages and water instead.
  6. For frequent travellers, it might be well worth it to check the natural process of melatonin production in your saliva. By determining tthis, you can adjust the timing your own melatonin intake to optimize the effects long term (if you decide take any medicine). Discuss with your doctor on what posbilities you have.
Posted by:   Didi Aaftink  | 
Join the conversation Show comments


When travelling eastbound, I always plan to nap for no longer than 2 hours to get over the worst of the tiredness. Is this an advisable practice?

Didi Aaftink

Thank you for your comment. If you didn’t get some sleep on the plane, it could be an advisable practice. In that case do not sleep more than 2-3 hours upon arrival. It of course also depends on your own circadian rhythm.

Johan van t Wout

Jetlag? I just don t do Jetlag that’s it for me. I think 99% of the Jetlag is between our ears


If you fly from South Korea ( not business class ) to Paris and straight to Rio de Janeiro you will have a jet lag even if you think it is between the ears .


Is it just jet lag? Didn’t they get it with piston planes?

Didi Aaftink

Thank you for your comment. You are probably right about the piston planes, but the thing is piston planes usually didn’t fly that far. They also used several stretches before arriving at the final destination, and had more time to adjust to the local time zone upon arrival.

Kevin Kos

I just returned from Minsk, Belarus , (9 hrs ahead of Austin, Texas) & didn’t sleep the night before I headed eastbound. This seemed to help me sleep more on the plane. Getting back to Texas was a much easier transition. Who say’s there’s no such thing as a time machine!?


Adjusting your watch to destination time on departure helps me, usually in three tranches of 2-3 hours.
But why do the airlines not serves meals based on the local time at the destination. And get the cabin lights in sync too!
Now that would be innovation, adjust on the way, not when you get there.

Didi Aaftink

Thank you for your comment. Setting your watch is definitely a good idea. I do not know about our service schedule. We do not want people getting hungry leaving on a daytime flight and flying into a nighttime zone without a proper meal.


si how do flight attendants cope with jetlag, if they are constantly moving from one place to another not staying for more than a couple of days in the same destination?


I am not sure if this applicable for all people. I travelled from Scandinavia to the Carribean (=westobund, crossing 6 timezones) with my husband and we both had a bad jetlag that did not go away throughout the entire 12 days we spent there, no matter what we did – and we were on vacation, so plenty of time and opportunity to adjust. Still, by 8 pm every night we were litterally DEAD, so eating a dinner at a resaturant was just impossible as we were falling asleep sitting at the table. And we are “night owls”, both of us! BUT, upon the return to Scandinavia (=eastbound, again crossing 6 timezones) we had NO jetlag whatsoever!! And everybody had told us that it’s going to be really bad, so we waited and waited and waited… but NOTHING!! So, our conclusion is that jetlag is such an individual thing that there simply is no one recipy for all. A human body has a mind of its own and our bodies certainly don’t seem to give a damn about any common jetlag “rules”… :-)

Alan Ward

I travel long-haul 4 – 6 times a year.
An Expedition Doctor gave me some advice when I told him I couldn’t really sleep on flights.
His advice was two glasses of red wine followed by one Zopiklone and I find this works very well.
I’m in Business Class so I get a bed as well.
It doesn’t leave me with any ill effects when I wake up and I can work much better on arrival.
Probably not the medical advice you might offer though………………….

Didi Aaftink

Thank you for your comment. I wouldn’t dare to give you this advice, but I’m glad it works for you.

Jirú Alois Baena Alleleijn

Ik ben Jirú Alois Baena Alleleijn

Ik ben Nederladse Nacionalited and Nacionalited Colombianse

good bay


I’m more of a night time person and i find travelling eastbound no matter how many time zones you cross alot easier to manage with any “jetlag” than flying westbound and crossing one time zone. Flying west for me is horrible and it takes me at least 10 days to adjust, whether it be a new destination or coming home. I just try to avoid flying westbound if i can.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *