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Jet Lag Is Rougher When You Travel East, According to Science

July 14, 2016
3 min read
Jet Lag Is Rougher When You Travel East, According to Science
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Like a hangover, jet lag is the maddening trade-off for a good time — in the former case, a night of heavy drinking; in the latter, the chance to see the world. Also like a hangover, it seems everyone has his or her own “secret” cure for it, whether it’s a vitamin, a hit of Viagra, light therapy glasses or a garish face pillow straight out of a sci-fi movie.

Yet for as long as the condition has been infuriating travelers, it's also been fascinating scientists. Just last month, a team of researchers at California’s Salk Institute announced that they’d discovered a protein which could be the key to finding a cure for jet lag altogether. In the meantime, science has an even simpler suggestion for how to reduce the severity of the affliction: head west. On Tuesday, a team of scientists at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics published a study in Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science titled “Resynchronization of circadian oscillators and the east-west asymmetry of jet lag.”

No, we don’t really know what those words mean either, but the gist of the paper, according to an article by The Washington Post, is this: Jet lag is thought to be the result of a disruption to one’s circadian rhythms, or, in other words, the cycle of physical, emotional and behavioral processes that our bodies undergo in a 24-hour period. Depending on which direction you’re traveling in, your normal “day” will be disrupted as you cross different time zones. If you’re headed west, the day (at least according to the watch on your arm) will become longer, thus giving your circadian clock more time to adjust to the change in geography. Travel east, and you’re losing precious hours in the day, making it tougher to get back to your normal routine.

According to the study, on average, it would take a person a little less than four days to recover from a westward trip in which they passed through three times zones as opposed to a little more than four days to recover from a three-time-zone trip eastward. Up that to six time zones and you’re looking at a six-day recovery for a trip headed west versus eight days for one headed east. By the time you hit nine time zones, it’s eight days versus 12.

In some ways, it’s very much like one of those math problems your high school teacher wrote up on the chalkboard: If you were to take a 10:00am from New York to Los Angeles, you’d land six hours later, which would put you at LAX around 1:00pm local time, giving you the rest of the day to go about your business and be exhausted enough to (hopefully) fall asleep at your normal bedtime. If that same flight were headed for Reykjavik, Iceland — which also takes six hours — you’d land at about 8:00pm, cutting the non-airplane-seated hours in your day down pretty significantly. It also means that you’d be exposed to far less light, which is essential to regulating one’s circadian rhythm — something to consider the next time the Blue Lagoon beckons.

We want to hear from you: do you feel jet lag is worse when you're traveling east vs. west? Sound off below.

H/T: The Washington Post

Featured image by Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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