Beating jetlag, with a bit of help from NASA

Did you know that there are some people who are actually better at switching east rather than west? Turns out that about 25% us are. I’m not one of them and I sortof hate those who are, but that’s a whole different problem.

Everyone who travels enough seems to have their own system for beating jetlag. My personal approach generally involves a beer and a shower shortly after arrival and then seeing what the rest of the day brings; I understand that the scientific backing for that approach might not be too sound, but I enjoy it well enough. The New York Times has a piece in this Sunday’s travel section offering up a few other suggestions, ones which are probably more reasonable given that they were developed in consultation with NASA engineers.

It turns out that light is, more than anything, a driving force behind the ability to adjust to a new time zone. It has to be controlled both during the trip and upon arrival. The idea is, more or less, to trick your body into believing it is earlier or later than it actually is at home so you can adjust to the new time as easily as possible. Apparently that means wearing sunglasses on the plane while having dinner on an eastbound redeye. Yeah, you wear your sunglasses at night.

That much made intuitive sense to me. What was surprising to me, however, was the recommendation to actually not try to adjust immediately to the new time zone upon arrival. The NASA folks recommend keeping the sunglasses on, not exposing yourself to too much light too early. Wait until a normal sunrise time back at home to start to wake your body up. I’m not entirely sure how that works with a 12 hour jump like flying between NYC and Japan but the idea actually makes a bit of sense as I think about it.

Sadly, my preferred method of sleeping on the plane is generally frowned upon by the NASA folks:

If you are able to sleep during the flight, even better. Astronauts and mission-control personnel have used eye masks, earplugs and sleep aids like Ambien to help them doze, Dr. Johnston said. But he cautioned travelers who want to take a sleeping pill to check with their doctor first and to avoid taking any medication with alcohol. Many airline passengers “just get drunk and pass out,” he said, underscoring that a hangover does nothing to alleviate jet lag.

The last bit of advice they give is one that is probably the biggest rule I seem to break. They suggest starting the process of getting to sleep an hour or so before you are actually ready to. That means dimming lights and getting away from computers and phones and such and letting your brain begin to shut down. It won’t want to because it is still mid-afternoon back at home, but that’s what you have to do to to get your brain set right. I’ll have to work on that one going forward.

Oh, and they reasonably strongly recommend against drugs to deal with jet lag. Having participated in a drug trial for one of them, I can somewhat understand why.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. My usual approach is to start moving my meals to the new time zone over a three-day period before departure (by ~1 hr/day), then stick to that. I don’t shift my sleep schedule until I’m in transit, but I find that meal shifting does help.

  2. Very interesting information. Thank you. I’ll try anything – sunglasses included – to help me jump start my vacation!

  3. I’ve come to the theory that insomniacs like me have an edge when it comes to jet lag. We’re used to sleeping inconsistently, fitfully, and for short periods, so the crossing of the time zones isn’t as disruptive to our norm as to that of people who get good sleep regularly. I do nothing special and always find I adjust more quickly than travel companions.

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