You, Your Gut, and Jet Lag

Airplane interior with blue lighting.

It’s summertime! The travel bug is in the air. Maybe you’ve made travel plans already, now that the kids have finished the school year. Maybe you’ve been looking forward to a summer abroad program with your university. Or maybe you’re still deciding where exactly to go for the perfect summertime getaway.

Travel across several time zones is on the agenda this time of year. It’s the right time to visit many places outside the US, from Spain to South Africa to Peru, not to mention any one of the world’s islands with postcard perfect beaches.

The downside to this type of travel is jet lag. You know the feeling. You’re wide awake at 2 AM and no amount of punching your pillow into just the right configuration, throwing off the covers, or tossing and turning gets you back to the sleep you crave. Then you’re exhausted at the most inopportune times, like the special dinner date you planned for your spouse. To top it all off, a normal bowel movement seems out of reach, you’re a little nauseated, and you’re irritated with your travel companions for no apparent reason.

Sound familiar?

Jet lag occurs when your internal clock, which regulates your circadian rhythms, is out of sync with the time at your current location. Your main internal clock is located in your brain. But did you know there are peripheral internal clocks throughout your body, including in your gut? Intuitively, it makes sense. A circadian rhythm, by definition, is something that we do on a daily basis. While the term is often used to refer to sleep cycles, most of us eat at scheduled times daily. Your body becomes accustomed to this pattern just like it does your regular bedtime.

This explains why some of the symptoms of jet lag include nausea, diarrhea, constipation, or some combination of these, depending on the individual and the trip.

The internal clock is notoriously difficult to reprogram. The general rule of thumb is that it takes your body one day to recover for every time zone crossed. That means if you fly from Raleigh to London, crossing five time zones, jet lag should last approximately five days.

However, there are some ways to minimize jet lag and the GI symptoms that often accompany it. Let’s take a look.

  • If you can, prepare for your trip by trying to get in the time zone you will be traveling to before you leave.

    This isn’t possible for everyone, but for those who can do this, it’s helpful. Even changing your internal clock by a few hours will help you recover from jet lag more quickly.

  • Stay hydrated before, during, and after your travel.

    Chances are, you’re traveling via plane, which is known for dehydration. Combat that by taking a reusable water bottle with you. Pour out your water before you go through security and refill when you reach the other side. (It should be noted that tap water, or water from water fountains, is not safe to drink in every country in the world. Check this before you refill your water bottle). Remaining well hydrated helps your bowel movements stay regular.

  • Stay away from caffeine and alcohol.

    This goes hand and hand with number two above. Tempting as it is, caffeine and alcohol dehydrate you, which can worsen symptoms of jet lag, including GI symptoms.

  • Pack some fiber supplements in case you get constipated and some loperamide in case you get diarrhea. These may not be readily available over the counter in your destination, so it’s best to bring them with you. Always follow the instructions on the box and check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure these won’t interact with any other medications you take. Remember, foodborne or waterborne illness are more common in some areas of the world (think Montezuma’s revenge). In cases of prolonged diarrhea, you should seek medical help.

    Bring some over the counter medications with you.

  • Speak to your doctor.

    If over the counter medication isn’t enough for your usual jet lag symptoms, speak to your doctor about whether a prescription medication is right for you.

Cheers to safe, happy, and jet lag-free travels this summer!

You don’t have to leave the US to have some symptoms of jet lag, though. The three hour time difference between the East Coast and West Coast will throw many people’s internal clocks off.