Is jet lag worse travelling east rather than west?
There’s some curiosity around the phenomenon of jet lag: how best to treat it, how to get over it quickly, and a true question for the ages – is it better for jet lag to travel east rather than west? Or vice versa? Or does it matter at all?
How does jet lag work?
Jet lag is when your normal sleep pattern is disturbed after a long flight. Each of our body functions follow a circadian rhythm, which serves as our personal internal clock. This is all powered by a section of the brain called the hypothalamus.
Symptoms of jet lag usually last for a few days while your body physically adjusts to the new time zone before settling into the patterns of your new timezone.
This internal master clock that we all possess produces a hormone called melatonin when it gets dark, making us drowsy and ready for bed. Flying to a new time zone causes our internal clock to go out of sync with the time at our destination and then the body has to re-establish a natural rhythm. This is where jet lag comes in.
Do you get more jet lag travelling east than west?
Science has an answer for this one, and that answer is yes, it is more difficult for a human body to travel east than west. A study published in 2016 crunched the numbers on why travelling east is worse for jet lag. In short, your body’s natural rhythm follows a 24.5-hour day, slightly longer than the standard 24-hour sun-up, sun-down rhythm. That means that if you’re travelling east over many timezones, you’ll ‘lose’ additional time.
In a way, you’re travelling forwards in terms of hours and days, arriving ahead of yourself which requires your body to be ‘advanced’.
Take off in London at 7am on Monday and fly for 11 hours to Tokyo, which is eight hours ahead.
On London time, you land at 6pm. Your body is ready for dinner and a night’s sleep.
On Tokyo time, you took off at 3pm on Monday and arrived at 2am on Tuesday. Arriving in the middle of the night effectively means you miss a night’s sleep – you’re jumping ahead to the next day.
How do you treat jet lag?
Given time, your body will deal with jet lag naturally. However, there are some other natural remedies, outlined below, that you can try before trying jet lag tablets.
How to prevent jet lag
Planning your trip
- Select flight times strategically and pick a flight that allows you to arrive in the early evening, ensuring you get a good night’s sleep straight away
- Plan extra days if possible, and get to your destination a few days early so you can acclimatise before any big event you’ll be attending
- Anticipate the change – if you’re flying eastward, get up earlier for a few days prior to your departure; If you’re flying westward, do the opposite and stay awake longer
On the plane
- Set your watch to the destination’s time zone as soon as you’re on the plane
- Sleep on the plane if you’re travelling eastward
- Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine on the flight, as both will make things worse
- If bedtime is too far away and you just have to sleep, take a power nap of no more than 20 minutes – make sure you set an alarm so you don’t sleep for too long
- Go outside during the day – natural light will help your body clock adjust
If you are very worried about dealing with jet lag, tablets are available to help you get over it faster. They should not be taken for more than a few days, and should never be used as a cure for insomnia when you aren’t actually travelling.
How do you get jet lag treatment?
There are three simple steps to get jet lag treatment:
- Complete an online consultation (a short questionnaire that takes about 5 minutes)
- A clinician will assess your suitability, and if you’re eligible will prescribe a treatment
- Click and collect at your nearest LloydsPharmacy, which includes selected Sainsbury’s stores