Jet lag will be more severe when flying in this direction

It can turn expert pilots into profuse yawners and turn even the most experienced travelers into zombies—and when it hits you, boy, does it hit you. I'm talking, of course, about jet lag: that disorienting feeling of crippling fatigue that sets in when you're traveling between time zones, somehow managing to knock you out and keep you awake at the same time. But if you’ve ever suspected that jet lag is worse when traveling in certain directions, congratulations, you’re absolutely right, and it’s backed up by science. New research shows that jet lag affects us most severely when we fly from west to east (such as New York to London, rather than the other way around), and it all depends on the way our brains regulate light.

A study published in the journal Chaos details the creation of a mathematical model that goes some way to explaining why traveling eastward can make us feel worse than traveling in the opposite direction , The New York Times reports — and hopefully it will also teach us how to overcome this heart-breaking flight fatigue more quickly. Apparently, each of us has our own internal clock deep in the hypothalamus region of the brain. According to the New York Times, roughly every 24 hours, "20,000 pacemaker cells in this area, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, synchronize to send signals to the rest of the body, whether it's day or night." Cells are attuned to the light around us and to routines associated with certain brightness levels—for example, most of us sleep when it's dark and move around when it's daylight.

But traveling across multiple time zones can throw these little pacemaker cells into disarray: Our brains become very groggy as our body clocks seek out our normal schedule via those familiar light cues. When we can't find it, we get jet lag.

That's the point of the plot: Mathematical models suggest that, because of the way our body clocks are set up, a trip east for less than 12 hours makes us feel worse than a trip west of the same length. Dr. Michelle Gervin, a physicist at the University of Maryland who studied the model, told the New York Times that most of the time, our bodies are a little slow; without consistent light cues, the pacemaker cells in your body try to Most of us can do just fine by extending our day. "The natural cycle of the body's internal body clock is slightly longer than 24 hours, which means it is easier to move west and lengthen the day than to move east and shorten the day," Dr. Gervin said.

This means that if we were traveling from New York to Europe, we could probably get away with a few extra hours of sleep, since most of us tend to push back on sleep a little anyway (think late night parties and all-nighters in college). But what about shortening our day? This is exactly what gets us into trouble. Based on how our bodies respond to these light cues, scientists hope the model also provides some simple ways to overcome jet lag with minimal intervention; obviously, it all depends on our ability to match our internal clocks to our destination clock as quickly as possible . So if you have a trip coming up, try these three simple ways to ease jet lag before it derails your trip.

1. Get these apps

In 2014, scientists launched a free app based on a model similar to the one above, called Entrain, that can calculate your light schedule based on your travel plans. Start by entering your location and destination, as well as the type of light around you en route; then this app will provide you with an easy schedule to help you rest your body clock quickly and efficiently. Another app called Stop Jet Lag works in a similar way.

2. Adapt to local dining arrangements

In addition to light, mealtimes also help provide important signals to our bodies. So eating breakfast at breakfast—even though it might already be 9 p.m. in your mind—is one way to retrain those pacemaker cells.

3. Plan ahead of time

According to, you can completely beat jet lag if you're able to switch to the time zone you're going to before boarding your flight. For example, if you're flying east, you could try going to bed an hour earlier each night for a few days before your flight. If you're traveling from east to west, try going to bed later than usual. However, this technique usually only works if you have more than two days at your destination. Also, if you're changing your sleep schedule, you may want to do it slowly over a few days to avoid problems before you go. For longer trips, though, it might just be the airfare.

However, if all else fails, you can give it a try and figure it out. Airlines such as British Airways offer "Slow TV" services, which are specifically designed for in-flight entertainment and aim to put passengers to sleep through a "hypnotic" effect. I think it's worth a visit.

Have a nice trip!

Image source: zhengshun tang/Moment/Getty Images; Jiffy (5)