Five Unavoidable Facts About Jet Lag, the Sickness With No Cure

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by Christopher J Lee and Author of Jet Lag, The Telegraph, August 16, 2018

For the frequent flier, jet lag is no news. Travelling internationally has meant shouldering the burden of this particular form of modern exhaustion – an increasingly ordinary condition informed by an intersection of time, technology, and the human body. And yet despite its commonplace nature, it remains a perpetual annoyance, a physical reminder that human innovation has its limits.

First coming into use during the Sixties, “jet lag” is a portmanteau expression combining “jet set” and “time lag”. After the invention and use of jet aircraft during the Second World War, commercial air travel quickly took off, so to speak, during the Fifties with the promise of speed and the opportunity for passengers to experience the thrill of all that modern aviation had to offer. However, it was gradually noticed that this new class of elite traveller suffered from a previously undiagnosed ailment, a specific kind of tiredness that resulted directly from the pace of jet travel.

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A half century later, we are still living with this exhaustion, with few solutions at hand. Jet lag has become ingrained into the day-to-day lives of numerous business travellers and frustrated holidaymakers alike. How then might we think about jet lag?

1. Jet lag is different from ordinary fatigue

It is worth emphasising that jet lag is not the same as ordinary fatigue. While crowded cabins, uncomfortable seats, and crying children can be contributing factors to the exhaustion of air travel, jet lag is not an effect of these circumstances. Rather, it is the outcome of our biological clocks, which are set to a particular place, coming into conflict with the time of the place of our arrival due to the speed of air travel.

Jet lag can therefore occur whenever a single time zone is crossed. But it is most strongly felt when multiple time zones are involved. Put simply, this is why one feels so awful arriving in London Heathrow at 8am in the morning from JFK: it still feels like 2am in New York. Your body has travelled faster than your body’s ability to reset its inner clock, better known as your circadian rhythm.

At a glance | Jet lag 

2. Jet lag has no cure

This unavoidable clash between local time and your biological clock is to say that there is no cure as such for jet lag. There certainly are treatments. Beyond getting a coffee, taking a nap, and other techniques that apply to ordinary fatigue, there are tricks specific to jet lag.

Dietary routines like the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag Diet prescribe a sequence of feasting and fasting prior to travel to help reset one’s biological routine. More recently, light therapy glasses have also become popular as an aid for quickly readjusting circadian rhythms, albeit for a price. Beyond these ways of “hacking” one’s biological clock, the most dependable way to get over jet lag is simply to let your body take time to adapt through exposure to sunlight and the celestial cycle of the place of arrival – about one day for each time zone crossed.

Overall, respect your body and be patient. Circadian rhythms can be found in all living organisms – from blue whales to single-cell bacteria – and they have evolved for a variety of important reasons.  

3. Jet lag has an economic impact

Of course, most passengers are not patient, which in turn has generated a provisional culture of jet lag. Capitalism rarely waits. Walk through the terminal of most any international airport and you will not only find Starbucks and a variety of other coffee venues to up one’s lagging energy, but also vendors selling neck pillows, massage services, as well as airline clubs and lounges that offer showers, hot bars, and sleeping options for in-transit travelers. First-class passengers will already find such amenities on board aircraft with fully reclining seats and other detailed luxuries.

Jet lag has had an economic impact. Sleep is being commodified.  

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4. Jet lag has become a metaphor

With jet lag an increasingly ubiquitous experience, the expression has been appropriated for different settings beyond air travel – a metaphor for any situation involving a disjuncture or “lag” between what is and what should be.

“Social jet lag” is a condition of sleep disorder that does not involve travel, but difficult – and often incompatible – work and rest schedules. People who work the night shift at hospitals, for example, disrupt their biological clocks by remaining awake during a time when their bodies require sleep. “Cultural jet lag” is a term used in social psychology to describe a sense of cultural distance and disconnection, while “emotional jet lag” has been used as an analogue for feelings of nostalgia.

In a more sanguine vein, the pilot and writer Mark Vanhoenacker has coined the expression “place lag” to describe the wonder of arriving at new locales after a long flight. Parallel to jet lag and its time difference, the temporary spatial disjuncture between the familiarity of home and the unfamiliarity of elsewhere, enabled through the speed of air travel, can reset one’s perspective on the world.  

5. Jet lag is what capitalism feels like

Following the opportune possibilities of place lag, jet lag might also be said to offer a new perspective on the modern world when taken seriously. When we think of globalisation, we tend to think of movements of people and commodities between continents – McDonald’s franchises in Beijing, for example.

But globalisation can also be felt. Jet lag is what global capitalism feels like.

Jet lag captures in microcosm the acceleration of modern life – and the exhaustion that such speed entails. Commercial jet travel is part of a broader pattern of modern convenience that has shaped our lives. Whether receiving up to the second information on our Twitter feeds or travelling overnight to Johannesburg, technology has enabled us to do things faster, although not always for the better.

Jet lag points to the biological limits of technological innovation. It disrupts our physiological routine and sleeping patterns specifically, in a way that handheld devices increasingly do as noted by medical doctors and sleep scientists. Jet lag can serve as a warning.

But it can also be overcome with patience and an understanding of the biological need for rest – an essential lesson that extends well beyond the fleeting experience of jet lag.

Christopher J. Lee is a frequent traveller and the author of Jet Lag (Bloomsbury 2017)

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This article was written by Christopher J Lee and Author of Jet Lag from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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