Updated: Sep 30
As a pilot, crossing multiple time zones is a regular part of the job. The body's internal clock often struggles to adjust to rapid travel across various time zones, resulting in the dreaded jet lag. This blog post discusses helpful strategies and tips for pilots to minimize the effects of jet lag and time zone changes.
Understanding Jet Lag
Jet lag occurs when the body's circadian rhythms are disrupted by traveling rapidly across time zones (Mayo Clinic, 2022). The body's natural clock lags behind the new time zone, causing fatigue, insomnia, irritability, poor concentration, nausea, and headaches. Jet lag is worse traveling eastbound and when crossing more time zones. Symptoms last a few days but can extend up to a week if crossing 8-12 time zones (Sleep Foundation, 2022).
Since jet lag is caused by mismatch between external and internal time, preparing your body clock beforehand helps ease the transition (Smith et al., 2019):
- Gradually adjust sleep schedule to match destination time zone for 2-3 days pre-flight
- Avoid large meals and alcohol before and during the flight
- Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water
While in-flight, pilots should try to sync to the new time zone (Smith, 2019):
- Set watch, phones, and flight deck clocks to destination time
- Adapt eating and sleep to match - e.g. nap if nighttime at destination
- Avoid heavy cabin lighting if destination time is night
- Wear eyeshades and avoid screen use
After landing, the following tips can help overcome jet lag (CDC, 2022):
- Get exposure to sunlight and darkness per local time
- Stick to healthy sleep habits
- Avoid heavy meals for the first 48 hours
- Nap minimally - up to 2 hours max
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
- Exercise lightly
- Stay hydrated
Frequent time zone travel is inevitable in a pilot's career. While jet lag may not be completely preventable, various precautionary steps can help ease the body’s transition across time zones and help pilots function optimally.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Jet lag and sleep. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/workschedules/jetlagsleep.html
Mayo Clinic. (2022). Jet lag. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/jet-lag/symptoms-causes/syc-20374051
Sleep Foundation. (2022). Jet lag. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/jet-lag
Smith, C. S., Eastman, C. I., & Burgess, H. J. (2019). How to travel the world without jet lag. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 14(2), 241-254.