Sleep Like a Sleep Scientist: How to Handle a Transatlantic Flight & Jet Lag

By: SleepScore Labs  |  May 25th, 2021

Transatlantic travel can be both mentally and physically taxing. If you’ve ever traveled on a long-haul flight, you know the drill: pray your baggage meets the weight allowance, deal with the stress of getting through check-in and security, and then wait hours in a confined metal tube to get to your final destination. To make matters worse, after finally arriving at your destination you may experience sleep problems and daytime sleepiness, problems thinking clearly, stomach and digestive issues, and just general malaise. These are some of the most common symptoms of jet lag – and the unfortunate price you pay for flying across two or more time zones. In this article, we’ll explore why long-haul flights often cause jet lag, whether flying east versus west is more favorable for your sleep-wake patterns, and ideal steps to take before, during, and after your trip to help you limit jet lag and hit the ground running. Best of all, these tips don’t require a first-class ticket!

Why Do Transatlantic Flights Impact Sleep? 

Jet lag is a temporary circadian rhythm disorder that occurs when there is a misalignment of your body clock (also known as your circadian rhythm) and the local time at the new destination. Under normal circumstances, your circadian rhythm mirrors daylight cycles and synchronizes with a 24-hour period to ensure essential physiological functions and processes occur throughout the day and night. One of the most well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle which is often most severely impacted by jet lag. While transitioning to a shifted 24-hour period following a change in time zones, there is a temporary disruption of how and when hormones are released in the body. The more time zones crossed during travel, the more likely jet lag symptoms are to be severely pronounced.

Generally speaking, crossing three or more time zones is associated with the most noticeable symptoms. However, not everyone taking long-haul transatlantic flights and crossing multiple time zones will experience jet lag. There are several physiological factors that may contribute to the severity of jet lag symptoms. One study found that modulating the levels of oxygen in animals accelerated the recovery of jet lag. However, this work still needs to be replicated in humans. Another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that age may be a determinant of jet lag. Among athletes, coaches, and academics attending a conference, those that were younger experienced less jet lag and fatigue. Additional studies are needed to determine other potential risk factors for jet lag including stress, pre-existing sleep disorders, and use of alcohol and caffeine during flights.

Does One Direction of Travel Impact Sleep More Severely?

Several studies have found that traveling from west to east contributes to more pronounced symptoms of jet lag relative to traveling from east to west. Traveling to the east increases hours to the days while traveling west reduces them. When traveling east, the circadian rhythm gets less time to synch with the destination time.

One common flight route that often contributes to jet lag is the flight from Los Angeles to New York or Miami. If your flight arrives in the evening at, for example, 9 PM, your brain may still operate as if it were 6 PM causing a delay in sleep time. If you only begin to feel tired at 10 PM Pacific Time, that would be 1 AM Eastern time – causing you to both fall asleep and wake up later. These effects may be heightened for international flights. For example, Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa is one of the longest long-haul flights clocking in at nearly 17 hours and crosses several time zones. The Olympic Games is a major worldwide event that often contributes to widespread jet lag. For example, during the 2020 Olympic Games held in Tokyo Japan, athletes traveling to Tokyo from North America dealt with an 8-11 h time change. Those traveling from Western Europe also faced a significant time zone change between 6-8 hours. The effects of jet lag may contribute to illness, fatigue, recovery and preparedness in endurance athletes.

How Can I Avoid Or Limit The Effects of Jet Lag?

Choose Your Plane Wisely

Airline companies recognize how much of a nuisance jet lag is for passengers. Companies like Airbus and Boeing have recently trialed new technologies intended to mitigate jet lag or even prevent symptoms entirely before even landing. Airbus recently invested over $15 billion developing its new A350 XWB jets. In addition to being lighter, more fuel-efficient, and aerodynamic, they’re also fitted with some of the most advanced lighting solutions intended to control the circadian rhythm. During flights, the A350’s “hero lighting” changes color temperature and intensity throughout the flight to mimic normal shifts in sunlight and sunrise.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner also comes equipped with jet lag-limiting technologies. In addition to a specialized LED lighting system, the Boeing Dreamliner is fitted with an improved air filtration and pressure system that comfortably increases humidity throughout the cabin. According to United Airlines, these specialized units ensure passengers arrive feeling less fatigued, with most experiencing a reduction in jet lag – however, formal studies on these claims have not been conducted to our knowledge. If you’re looking to beat jet lag, one potential solution would be to ensure your flight route uses Boeing and Airbus’ newer planes like the Dreamliner or A350 XWB. Fortunately, several other methods exist to prevent or reduce jet lag if you’re not lucky enough to score a flight on these aircraft.

Let There Be Light (At The Right Time!)

Light is arguably the single most powerful environmental cue influencing the circadian rhythm. Harnessing the power of light by limiting or exposing it at the right times can help mitigate jet lag. For example, blue light filters such Swannie’s Blue Light Blocking Glasses can be used to block excessive light to phase advance (push back) your circadian rhythm. Although properly timed sunlight has the strongest circadian effects, artificial light therapy glasses for sleep may also be used upon awakening to support the circadian rhythm and help with the effects of jet lag. You may also benefit from appropriately timed outdoor exercise upon arrival to recalibrate your circadian rhythm. Scheduling the timing of light exposure before, during, and after flights may reduce circadian rhythm misalignment.

Melatonin Supplementation

In addition to tactically planned light exposure, melatonin supplementation is now considered a commonly accepted treatment for jet lag. Before taking melatonin, speak with your doctor about the optimal dosage and timing of dosages before and during your flight. Generally, melatonin should be taken at the local bedtime after flying eastwardly if attempting to phase advance (push back) your circadian rhythm. If trying to push the circadian rhythm forward, melatonin may be taken in the morning hours.

Pre-Travel Tips

Before traveling, deliberately plan and build buffers into your schedule to allow for realignment of your circadian rhythm. For eastward travels, research suggests that the likelihood of jet lag is reduced for afternoon arrivals. Ensuring you receive sufficient sleep prior to traveling can also ensure you don’t feel exhausted upon arrival. If sleep-deprived, you may be tempted to take an incorrectly timed siesta that turns into a longer sleep, further throwing off your sleep-wake cycle. Alcohol and caffeine consumption during your flight can further contribute to sleep deprivation since they’re both potent deep sleep inhibitors. Fortunately, for most people, jet lag symptoms ease after a few days of adjusting to your new schedule. By following these practical tips, you’ll be on your way to sleeping like a sleep scientist and making the most of your trip!

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Sleep well!

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