Jet lag is a condition marked by fatigue, insomnia, and irritability that is caused by air travel through changing time zones. It is commonplace: a 2002 study of international business travelers (IBTs) found that jet lag was one of the most common health problems reported, affecting as many as 74% of IBTs.
Living organisms are accustomed to periods of night and day alternating at set intervals. Most of the human body's regulating hormones follow this cycle, known as circadian rhythm. The word circadian comes from the Latin, circa, meaning about, and dies, meaning day. These cycles are not exactly 24 hours long, hence the "circa." Each chemical has its own cycle of highs and lows, interacting with and influencing the other cycles. Body temperature, sleepiness, thyroid function, growth hormone, metabolic processes, adrenal hormones, and the sleep hormone melatonin all cycle with daylight. There is a direct connection between the retina (the light-sensitive structure at the back of the eye) and the part of the brain that controls all these hormones. Artificial light has some effect but sunlight has much more. Disruption of circadian rhythms affects the sleep-wake cycles of night-shift workers as well as travelers.
When people are without clocks in a compartment that is completely closed to sunlight, most of them fall into a circadian cycle of about 25 hours. Normally, all the regulating chemicals follow one another in order like threads in a weaving pattern. Every morning the sunlight resets the cycle, stimulating the leading chemicals and thus compensating for the difference between the 24-hour day and the 25-hour innate rhythm.
When traveling through a number of time zones, most people reset their rhythms within a few days, demonstrating the adaptability of the human species. Some people, however, have upset circadian rhythms that last indefinitely.
Paula Ford-Martin, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,