We Can’t Just Keep Calling it ‘Jet Lag’

Written by Laura Brooks

After spending nearly two years stuck at home, barred from or cautioned against traveling, wanderlust levels are understandably reaching all-time highs. It’s all too easy to get lost in reminiscence about the glory days when one could hop on a transatlantic flight and the biggest concern was whether you’d be next to a crying baby or behind an over-recliner. But as we mentally prepare to retake the skies, let’s pause to briefly lower our rose-tinted shades for a long overdue discussion about one of flying’s undeniable drawbacks: jet lag. While we’re collectively grounded, it seems like the perfect time to admit that this simple term is actually too simple and not at all equipped to convey the myriad and often divergent ways jet lag inflicts suffering upon its victims.

If you’re fortunate enough to have never experienced jet lag after an intercontinental trip (or unfortunate enough to have never traveled outside of your time zone) this affliction you always hear travelers complaining about may seem like simple fatigue. Those with experience can attest that it’s much worse than the aftermath of staying up past bedtime or an earlier-than-usual rise. Our feeble bodies may have evolved quite a bit from their Neanderthal origins, but they aren’t quite built for traveling halfway around the globe in half a day. When we defy the laws of nature by rocketing our bodies after the sun about half the speed of the Earth’s rotation, our punishment for this hubris is an internal clock temporarily on the fritz. Specifically, it’s our circadian rhythms — the innate thing that tells us when to wake and sleep — that go haywire during jet lag. And who could blame them? The sun was down and it was time for bed exactly 24 hours ago and now the sun is overhead and you’re getting lunch?! Madness.

The universality of this plight has resulted in a host of purported remedies—some effective, most less so. On the more spurious side of things, you have folks who swear special beauty masks or a couple spritzes of rose water to the face can counter the lag. There are probably even a few out there ripping the Ludovico technique straight from the pages of A Clockwork Orange who think prying their eyelids open is the best way to force themselves through the drowsiness. But one need not resort to such masochistic measures to counter jet lag. Staying hydrated with water, avoiding alcohol, and even getting some inflight sleep can go a long way toward offsetting its effects. And once you land, there’s a NAPJITSU product that should help ease your transition into the new time zone. But the fact that which product we’d recommend is contingent upon your destination and your flight time speaks to the larger issue at hand and the thesis of this article.

The problem with “jet lag” being a catch-all term emerges when we take into account the disparate symptoms it can produce. While the grogginess, fatigue, and insomnia that result from a disrupted sleep cycle are the most common and obvious ailments, some travelers get bonus problems stacked on top of those. For starters, it’s not great for those already dealing with mental health issues. Beyond fostering some garden-variety mood swings, jet lag can worsen existing depression and anxiety issues, trigger manic episodes, and contribute to hallucinations or psychiatric breakdowns.

Then you’ve got the supplementary havoc jet lag can wreak on the gastrointestinal tract, colloquially referred to as “gut lag.” Loss of appetite, constipation, and diarrhea are all common symptoms that can throw a major wrench in a gourmand’s meticulously crafted tasting itinerary. It seems that even the bacteria in our stomachs get their own microscopic form of jet lag and, in turn, take it out on us. But even if you were able to maintain a normal appetite, research has indicated that compromised sleep can contribute to weight gain, which feels like a particularly cruel twist of the knife.

Though a clear anomaly, it’s also worth mentioning the case of Sarah Krasnoff, who may be the only recorded case of “death by jet lag.” In the summer of 1971, while navigating a custody dispute over her teenage grandson, Krasnoff exploited legal loopholes by flying the boy and herself back and forth between New York and Europe on 160 back-to-back flights. You don’t need a medical degree to diagnose such a gauntlet as unhealthy. At that summer’s end, Krasnoff, 74, collapsed and died of a heart attack.

Unless you plan on beating Sarah’s record, you probably don’t need to update your will on account of jet lag. For the average passenger, the usual symptom suspects pertaining to fatigue and alertness are all they’ll endure. Older travelers are also more affected in that they may take longer to recover from jet lag than their younger counterparts, but it’s really just those who are perpetually in the air — pilots, flight attendants, and business travelers — who tend to suffer its worst effects. 

You can probably guess that one of the main factors in determining jet lag severity is distance traveled, but fewer understand that direction plays just as, if not more, crucial a role in the outcome. For many, traveling east tends to cause worse jet lag than when traveling west as it results in a “phase delay” to our circadian rhythms, which forces our biological clock to push back its understanding of when bedtime is. This is a harder task for it than when we experience a “phase advance” caused by traveling west, which simply forces an earlier bedtime on it. While any little kid can tell you how frustrating it is to be told to sleep when you’re not sleepy, our bodies do a decent job of shutting down for rest when it’s forced upon them.

As you can see, this broad spectrum of symptoms begs for a more nuanced set of labels — a universalized, modular system that would help us succinctly convey to a friend or colleague whether we’re just going to be a bit foggy during that next Zoom or if we should not be held responsible for our actions in the coming hours and please do not call the cops should they start hearing strange, primal noises. While tactical use of NAPJITSU products can certainly help you stave off or bounce back from some of jet lag’s most annoying traits, we’re not about to try and tackle (let alone claim) its outright eradication. What we can offer, however, is a humble attempt at an expanded jet lag classification system that is simple enough to be understood by anyone, yet robust enough to stand the test of time.

Taking cues from hospital pain scales and the elegant simplicity of rock climbing difficulty ratings that indicate difficulty while simultaneously differentiating between bouldering and roped climbs, we’re proposing the NAPJITSU Jet Lag Matrix™. With west and east representing the indica and sativa of sleep deprivation, if you will, the first element of our system has the user selecting a W or E in accordance with the direction they flew. This serves the dual purpose of indicating whether they’re behind or ahead on sleep, while also educating the ignorant on the different effect each direction has. Then, the user indicates the severity of the lag’s impact on their mental faculties with a number from 1 to 10, 10 being the highest. Finally, if they’d like to discreetly announce any supplementary symptoms, like gastrointestinal problems or complications with existing mental health issues, the user can tack on a “—G” or “—M” respectively. We find this to be a far more dignified solution than warning the boss that you’ll “probably be on the toilet all day.”

Let’s say you’ve just come home to Chicago from Paris and your jet lag has you in a bit of a sleepy haze and a little depressed. Not ideal, but nothing too terrible. Rather than merely telling someone you were “jet lagged” and leaving them to try and guess how it was manifesting, you could instead say “I’m dealing with some W3-M lag right now” and they’d have a much better understanding of how you were feeling. And if they weren’t already aware of NAPJITSU Jet Lag Matrix™, it’d take less than a minute to explain it to them and further the cause.

We understand where you’re coming from, naysayers. This all may seem like a solution in search of a problem. But as explorers of all rest-related topics, we firmly believe that now is the time to address jet lag’s taxonomical shortcomings head on. Call us doe-eyed dreamers if you’d like, but we’re preparing for a future where every man, woman, child, and all other conceivable identities will be able to take a clean energy-powered supersonic jet or bullet train across a continent at lightning speed for an affordable rate. And when they disembark, several time zones later, they’re going to need a comprehensive way to complain about how shitty they feel.

Photo by Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash

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