Many of us likely harbor a degree of envy for the jet set of the world. You know, the editors, the It girls and bloggers, the photographers, and others who flit from coast to coast and have the Technicolor Instagram posts and worldly passport books to show for it. But as much as we may sigh longingly for the adventurous lifestyles of these constant wanderers, we know deep down that there's a downside to the whole glamorous affair. After all, we've probably all been there at least once and suffered from jet lag in a way that makes us wonder if it's worth it.
Maybe we're being a tad dramatic, but there's no denying that jet lag is one of the stranger, more challenging elements of air travel. You sleep the daylight hours away, then suddenly find yourself wired with energy come 2 a.m. You lament the fact that surely no one is awake, it being the middle of the night on a Wednesday. You consider taking walks around the neighborhood to use up some of that spare energy. Instead, you lie in bed and queue up the Netflix. Days pass. It can get dark.
According to research reported in The New York Times, jet lag is actually markedly worse when traveling from west to east, and we're starting to understand why. The reasoning lies with the hypothalamus, that hot spot of our brains that deals with endocrine, nervous system, and pituitary function. The Times reports that "approximately every 24 hours, 20,000 special pacemaker cells that inhabit this area … synchronize, signaling to the rest of the body whether it's night or day."
The way they know which signal to send? The amount of light they take in from our environment, which is why traveling by plane across time zones causes such a cellular kerfuffle. "Bright says wake, dark says sleep," The Times continues. What that means is that when our pacemaker cells struggle to receive a clear light message, they get a bit scrambled. Hello, jet lag.
One of the researchers on the paper wrote, "The body's internal clock has a natural period of slightly longer than 24 hours, which means that it has an easier time traveling west and lengthening the day than traveling east and shortening the day."
Now that we know this, is there a way to combat jet lag once and for all? Maybe… but ultimately, it's all about eating when you're supposed to eat, trying your absolute best to sleep when you're supposed to sleep (we love this calming aromatherapy eye pillow for ushering in some truly restful sleep), and allowing yourself the time to get back on track. Patience, child.
Do you have any secrets for combatting jet lag? Tell us below.
This post was originally posted on July 24, 2016, and has been updated by Sacha Strebe.