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It is not the jet lag, it’s the sleep deprivation.

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Since Decision Science News moved to London in 2005, its numerous staff have many trips between the US and Europe. In all of this going back and forth, the DSN staff has figured out how to completely beat transatlantic jet lag. The secret is realizing that “jet lag” isn’t the problem.

What is jet lag? Webster’s defines it as “a condition that is characterized by various psychological and physiological effects (as fatigue and irritability), occurs following long flight through several time zones, and probably results from disruption of circadian rhythms in the human body”. Decision Science News prefers the shorter and more accurate “baloney”.

Travelers don’t feel lousy after flying to Europe because of the new-agey concept of jet lag. They feel lousy because of sleep deprivation.

A typical NY to London flight leaves at 10PM and lands at 10AM (5AM New York time). In New York, passengers usually don’t sleep during taxi, takeoff and a movie, which puts them to bed around 1AM. Then they sleep, but wake up soon after for their omelette, melon, and landing procedures that start around 4AM (NY time). A little advanced algebra shows that 1AM to 4AM makes for only 3 hours of sleep. The disciplined can squeeze in 4 hours, but nobody, even braggarts, feels good after 3-4 hours of sleep.

We at DSN posit that the transatlantic trip feels lousy because of sleep deprivation, not because of jet lag. Since this is a science website, let’s consider the evidence:

  • If jet lag is primarily to blame, you should feel worse after traveling from LA -> London than from NYC -> London. Sleep deprivation theory predicts to opposite. We at DSN have tested this numerous times after stays of various durations and it turns out, amazingly,  that it is easier to transition between LA and London than NYC and London. On the longer flight (LA -> London is over 10 hours) you can sleep 6-7 hours and accordingly don’t wake up in London feeling sleep deprived.
  • Those who stay on the clock of the departure city feel no ill effects of crossing time zones.  Though passing through time zones and being exposed to daylight at different times should mess with your  “body rhythms” under the mystical “jet lag” theory, it does not.
  • The concept of jet lag would suggest that one would feel equally lousy traveling East to West as West to East since the same number of time zones is crossed. However, every transatlantic Tom knows that West to East is harder than East to West because there’s no sleep deprivation on the latter trip.
  • Those who take the day trip to Europe have little trouble adapting to the new time zone.

Fine, it’s not jet lag. But how, the DSN reader may ask, does this help us? As our parting words, we leave you with The Decision Science News Guide to Feeling Great after the Transatlantic Trip from the US to Europe.

The Decision Science News Guide to Feeling Great after the Transatlantic Trip from the US to Europe

  • If you start on the West coast, sleep on the plane.
  • If you start from the East coast or Midwest, take a hearty two hour nap when you land in Europe in the morning. Put the alarm clock on the other side of the room (or use Clocky) so you will have no choice but to get up after 2 hours. Despite our claims about feeling great, this will actually feel lousy, but is the only tough part. After said nap, you have lengthened your total sleep from 3-4 hours to 5-7 hours. Thanks to the well known phenomenon of arrival adrenaline, you will easily power through to a normal local bedtime. The next day, you’ll feel surprisingly well adapted.

Decision Science News only gives prescriptions for things it knows about. If you, dear DSN reader, have tips for flying between other countries / continents, please share them in the comments.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/araswami/1948449158/


  1. michael webster says:

    When I fly to Europe, usually with a stopover in Heathrow, I put my watch ahead to English time, and then when in London, ahead again to the time zone I am flying to. Seems to work for me.

    April 8, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

  2. anirban says:

    ‘commuting’ between hong kong and ny/boston, the two things that saved me were melatonin and my etymotics earphones. i hadn’t realized how much white noise there is on a plane, which puts ones body in a state of medium-high arousal for a very long stretch of time. obviously, this adds tremendously to the overall stress. i say block that noise out, drink plenty of water on board (the “juice” they serve is basically HFCS, which again energizes instead of relaxing), and keep popping the melatonin for a couple of nights after you arrive.

    hth, worked for me 🙂

    April 14, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

  3. dan says:

    Thanks for the tips! I’ll give them a shot.

    April 14, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  4. teresa says:

    I’ve being flying quite often between Europe and the US, and I’ve noticed that when my sleep is very irregular during the previous weeks, I don’t suffer of “jet lag” at all, in both direction of the flight.
    This seems to me as supporting more the “disruption of circadian rhythms” than the sleep deprivation explanation.

    April 16, 2009 @ 1:37 am

  5. Yechezkel Zilber says:

    “why the difference with the direction of the trip?”

    It is well known in sleep research that body clock moves easier forward than backward.
    For example, those who wake up very late, find it easier to move the whole clock forward (i.e. slowly getting up and going to sleep later and later till you get to your wanted schedule), than going backward.

    I can testify this from personal experience. It is terribly hard to change the time backward, but surprisingly easy to move it forward.

    April 26, 2009 @ 1:46 am

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