If there’s one thing that can zap the fun out of a vacation or drain the productivity from a business trip, it’s jet lag. Feeling hungry in the middle of the night, dosing off during the day, and struggling to sleep after dark are just some of the debilitating symptoms associated with hopping on a plane and crossing time zones.

Thankfully, scientists have made great strides in understanding exactly what causes jet lag, which means they can tell us how to overcome it as well.

In this fascinating TED talk, Professor Russell Foster from the University of Oxford talks about the science behind jet lag.

According to Foster, we all have a number of different body rhythms – things like alertness, digestion, muscle strength, and hormones. When we’re jet lagged, these body rhythms get thrown out of whack, hence that feeling of hunger in the middle of the night and our tendency to fall asleep while sightseeing during the day.

As it turns out, we can adjust our body rhythms to the local time using something we have readily available – our eyes. Foster says our eyes play an important role in regulating our body clocks because they have a special ability to detect brightness. So even if you’re blind or visually impaired, your eyes tell your body when it’s day and when it’s night, consequently telling your body when to go to sleep.

The science of it is all pretty interesting, but if you want to cut to the chase and learn about how you can enhance your ability to get over jetlag, fast forward to about 9 minutes into the talk.

Foster says we need to expose ourselves to light to push our body clock forwards or backwards in order to adapt to local time. The exact time of day that we expose ourselves to light is important because it effects when our bodies feel sleepy.

Here’s the key takeaway:

When you travel west: seek out daytime light.

When you travel east: avoid morning light and seek out afternoon light.

Check out the full talk below.

P.S. Here are a few other ideas about how to combat jet lag.

[Photo credit: original image by MattHurst]