Steps You Can Take to Reduce The Effects of Jet Lag

By ALPA Staff

If you fly the line, you’re intimately familiar with “jet lag”—that groggy sensation you experience when traveling across multiple time zones in a short period of time. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that “jet lag can affect your mood, your ability to concentrate, and your physical and mental performance,” factors that can directly impact your fitness to fly.

The FAA has recently taken a special interest in this aviation industry disorder. Federal Air Surgeon Susan Northrup, in her online video series Pilot Minute, posted a new episode last December titled “What is jet lag and how can I prevent it?” In the video, she notes, “Jet lag is a disruption of your circadian rhythm,” adding that many of the biological processes that occur in the body follow a 24-hour wake/sleep cycle.

Dr. Sue Jay, a physiologist from the Life Sciences branch of the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, also addressed jet lag in the most recent addition of the quarterly Federal Air Surgeon’s Medical Bulletin. Jay delved deeper into the mechanics of the disorder, pointing out, “Many body functions such as temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestive enzymes that regulate appetite fluctuate rhythmically throughout the day. These body functions are synchronized to each other and to the local environment by external cues.”

Chief among these cues is daylight. “When sunlight shines in your eyes, cells in the retina send signals to a specialized set of ‘pacemaker’ cells deep in the brain that control the circadian rhythm,” she continues. “These pacemaker cells become synchronized to the natural day/night cycle and keep the body’s circadian rhythm ‘on time’ with the local environment. The bottom line is that any time your 24-hour biological clock is disrupted, there will be physiological and behavioral consequences.”

Symptoms of jet lag include fatigue, mood changes, difficulty concentrating, sleep issues, and stomach problems such as constipation or diarrhea. In addition to quickly traveling across multiple time zones, other factors can contribute to increased fatigue, including sitting for long periods on an airplane, flying when you’d normally be asleep, and exposure to the decreased air pressure and low humidity that exist in the aircraft cabin during flight. Fortunately, there are some basic steps you can take to minimize jet lag’s effects.

In her video, Northrup recommends getting a good night’s sleep before your flight; avoiding the use of electronic devices or bright lights two to three hours before you go to bed; drinking lots of water; staying away from large meals, particularly those loaded with carbohydrates and fats, which can make you drowsy; and carefully managing caffeine intake.

Jay also suggests exercising and, if you’re tired, taking short naps during the day. She advises taking into consideration the direction of your upcoming trip and adjusting your regular sleep schedule several days before you leave to better prepare yourself. For example, if you’ll be flying from west to east, get to bed earlier and wake up earlier for several days prior to your departure. Alternatively, if your flight has you traveling in the opposite direction, go to bed later and wake up later. Other considerations include sleeping in a cool room and using ear plugs and an eye mask to limit noise and light. Bring clothespins to secure the drapes in your hotel room.

The FAA has produced a brochure titled “Circadian Rhythm Disruption and Flying” that contains general information on the subject, the effects this condition can have, and ways to mitigate it. The pamphlet concludes, “Remember, circadian rhythm disruption can lead to acute or chronic fatigue. Fatigue [on the flight deck] has shown to be just as debilitating as drugs and alcohol. Do not let circadian rhythm disruption–induced fatigue become a hindrance to aviation safety.”

Jet Lag Keeping You Up at Night?

ALPA members with general questions about mitigating jet lag and circadian rhythms, including federal policies on the use of medications, are encouraged to contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, to speak with a physician.

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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