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Health & Exercise Forum

Prevent Jet Lag

Jun 7, 2010

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumSummer is almost here! Soon it will be time for the Mackarey and Cali families to embark on their annual summer vacation to visit one our country's national parks. For the past 10 years we have had the good fortune to visit these spiritual places of natural wonder and beauty. Many of these parks are on the west coast and require several hours of travel through different time zones by airplane. This year will be no different as we plan to visit the Pacific Northwest; Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park.

However, with age I have noticed a slight change in the ability of my body to adjust to different time zones after many hours of travel. Getting off the plane, driving a few hours in a rental SUV, putting on my backpack, and hiking in the woods for several hours requires a little more time to acclimate than it did a few years ago. With this in mind, I would like to share some current wisdom and my personal experience to help ease the pain of jet lag for other active travelers.

What is Jet Lag?

Jet lag is considered to be a type of sleep disorder associated with long distance travel between time zones. When traveling between time zones, the natural sleep/wake cycle (circadian rhythm) of our body is disrupted by the change in pattern in daylight. This change can play havoc on many of the body’s natural functions including temperature regulation and hormone balance. The disruption to the body’s biorhythms is more than just simple sleep deprivation. It can be a much more difficult recovery than a few hours sleep and can ruin an active vacation.

Our upcoming trip to the Pacific Northwest is one such example. If we get up early (5 am), travel to Philadelphia, depart at 7 am, fly to Seattle and arrive 6 hours later (minus 3 hours for time zone change), we will be in Seattle at 10 am. If we get to a trail and hike all day, get to the cabin late, wash up, and eat at 7:30. But, it will actually be 10:30 pm and we will be exhausted, confused and thrown off schedule and our biorhythms will be spastic. Instead, we plan to leave at 8 pm arrive at 11 pm, (including time zone change), get a car, check in and get a good night’s sleep (maybe with a sleep aid) before we begin our adventure the next morning.

Symptoms of Jet Lag

As with most changes to the body, the results can be mild, moderate or severe. The more time zones crossed, the longer the trip, and the weaker the body prior to the trip all contributes to the severity of symptoms. Typically, it takes one day to adjust to a new time zone for every time zone crossed during travel. But, keep in mind, a readjustment is necessary on the return trip. For example, it can take up to three days for me to readjust to the east coast upon my return from the pacific coast. That explains why people returning from a vacation often feel they need another vacation before returning to work. Also, the older a person is, the more severe the symptoms and the longer it takes to adjust and readjust upon return.

While there is no specific test to diagnose jet lag, if you have the symptoms usually associated with jet lag, you do not have to see a doctor immediately. However, if symptoms last longer than 10 days, there may be another explanation for your symptoms and you should consult with your physician.

  • Tired and Fatigued during daytime hours
  • Headaches and Body Aches
  • Upset Stomach and Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to sleep through the night
  • Poor Concentration and Poor Judgment
  • Irritability

Prevention and Treatment of Jet Lag

There is no fool proof method to prevent jet lag; however, there are measures one can take to lessen the symptoms.

  • Make small adjustments in your schedule that imitate the time zone of your destination, a few days or a week before traveling.
  • Upon arrival, attempt to imitate the time zone of your destination. For example, arrive at night and get as much sleep as possible the first night. Then, sleep at night and stay awake during the day.
  • Prevent dehydration and drink plenty of water.
  • Limit caffeine which will prevent sleep at appropriate times and contribute to dehydration
  • Limit alcohol which will promote sleep at inappropriate times and contribute to dehydration
  • Get plenty of exercise and activity during the day
  • Spend plenty of time outdoors in the daylight

Treatment of jet lag is debatable. Some medical professionals advocate the use of the hormone melatonin. It is an unproven over-the-counter supplement that is taken before bed on the day of travel and for the first four days of travel. More common is the use of prescription sleep medications such as zolpidem (Ambien), to be used to assist in sleeping during the appropriate time in the new time zone. Melatonin and Ambien have side effects and should be discussed with your physician before use.

Sources: Harvard Medical Publications; International Society of Travel Medicine (

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an affiliated faculty member at the University of  Scranton, PT Dept.