Counting Clouds

Living in this isolated paradise tucked beneath the bottom of the globe brings with it an abundance of perks. It also means that trips abroad are often accompanied by a good dose of jet lag, a condition that can be draining to the point of debilitation, devastatingly robbing you of quality holiday time or, perhaps less dramatic, productive office hours upon your return. However, few issues rival jet lag when viewed through the first-world-problems prism, and, for obvious reasons, it’s not something that generally elicits much sympathy.


So, What Is Jet Lag?

According to the World Health Organisation, jet lag is the result of “the disruption of the body’s ‘internal clock’” caused by crossing multiple time zones, with possible symptoms including an upset stomach, insomnia, general malaise and “reduced physical and mental performance”.  Difficult as it is to sleep on an aeroplane, it is not this that causes jet lag, but rather, says Dr Alon Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Centre, the “misalignment of our circadian rhythm” resulting in our body clock to become “disorientated and confused”. Even if you are one of those lucky few who are able to catch some Zs on a plane it won’t guarantee a jet lag-free arrival for it’s when you snooze, rather than for how long, that is most important to countering the condition.


Tempting as it is, neither is it wise to take advantage of the complimentary booze to try to beat inflight insomnia—alcohol, especially at altitude, causes dehydration, and even disrupts sleep. “I know the answer is no alcohol,” veteran flight attendant and author of Cruising Altitude, Heather Poole, tells USA Today. “… the best thing you can do is drink water, tons of water. Hydration is the key to looking good and feeling good…” Though, she does admit a glass of wine does “help to take the edge off and ease the pain of travel”.


Fooling Flying

As well as shunning alcohol, the World Health Organisation advises sticking to light meals and resetting your internal clock with some “well-timed exposure to daylight”. Upon arrival, travellers must seek out morning sun when heading east, but stay indoors in the morning then making the most of the afternoon and evening light when flying west. Certain prescription or over-the-counter medications may help reduce insomnia, indirectly facilitating recovery—so long as you plan your sleep at the right time.


Another trick is to gradually adjust your eating and sleeping patterns in the days leading up to your flight, tricking that inner clock in preparation for its new time zone.  Advisor-to-the-astronauts, Erin E Flynn Evans, of Nasa, recommends those heading east should get up early for several days prior to flying, and turn on bright lights; while those west-bound would do well to stay up late, getting their daylight fix as late as possible. 


If it all sounds more effort than it’s worth, it may be worth noting that a study published in Sleep Medicine Clinics found that recurring jet lag in frequent flyers may pose all manner of long-term health risks like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and even cancer, while another study in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that the symptoms only get worse with age.



Step Forward, Tech

Though that jet lag-curing pill remains as elusive as the hangover one, in true 21st-century style, an app called ‘Timeshifter’ may be on the verge of blasting it into oblivion.

“The problems caused by jet lag cannot be tackled using generic advice, which is over simplistic and can be counterproductive, making jet lag worse,” says Steven Lockley PhD, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, who helped develop the app. “Each traveller and trip is different and requires a personalised approach.”


Timeshifter is not the first jet lag app, but it is the most advanced, endorsed by the likes of retired spaceman Michael López-Alegria (“When I was an active astronaut at Nasa, I used the same science-based circadian algorithm as Timeshifter is deploying. I can’t recommend Timeshifter enough”); Formula One champion Nico Rosberg (“Getting jet lag advise revolutionised my life”); and Under Armour performance coach and sport scientist, Michael Watts (“Timeshifter is a solution we use with elite athletes to accelerate recovery and reduce the effects of jet lag and give them a competitive edge”).


The app, available from the App Store and Google Play, generates personalised plans based on the likes of the user’s usual sleep pattern and chronotype (whether they’re a morning person or a night owl) and flight times, then incorporates a “practicality” filter to ensure “advice is realistic and easy to follow”. The notification system will tell you when to sleep, when to seek light, and when to avoid it. It even advises when to ingest—and resist—caffeine. Options allow for a timetable that begins up to three days before the flight, while the Quick Turnaround feature is aimed at business travellers looking to be at their best during shorter trips that don’t allow for a full adjustment.


Company CEO Mickey Beyer-Clausen hails Timeshifter as a “paradigm shift in jet lag solutions”, perfectly encapsulating “how mobile devices will improve our lives in unexpected ways”: “We are thrilled to finally put an end to all the jet lag myths and misinformation out there, and instead offer an effective tool that truly addresses the underlying cause of jet lag.”