Jet lag annihilates me. It is like my version of a really bad hangover. I can’t think, I can’t remember, I get lost frequently, massively grumpy — not an ideal situation. Maybe it gets worse with age, but even 20 years ago it would cripple me. We have spoken with a few sleep experts, and read the terrific book Why We Sleep and even with all this study and knowledge, traveling even a couple of zones will affect me consequentially.
Shifting the Circadian Rhythm
I was given the Time Shifter app to test for a year by the generous people at The Global Wellness Summit, and used it in both directions recently on my Los Angeles to Asia trip. The app’s inputs are the time of departure, arrival, airport code, layovers, and if one is self-described as a morning person or night owl. Simple. Using a combination of specifically timed caffeine, melatonin, sleep and, most importantly, exposure to light, it claims to shift the all-important circadian rhythm. This is the inner regulatory cycle that tells us when we should go to sleep and wake up.
The Body’s Sleep Cycle is Confused
The key thing to understand is that it is not tiredness from a lack of sleep on the plane that causes the problems in time zone adjustment, it is the confusion our body’s sleep cycle is having. Those cushy business seats are not going to make a difference in adjusting to a new time zone. Yes, you may sleep better, but are you sleeping at the correct time?
The founder of the app…spoke at The Global Wellness Summit. He had previously been in the business of making custom jet lag plans for people like F1 drivers, who are traveling huge time zones and need to be at peak alertness no matter what. He quickly realized that so much of the discussion around jet lag is bunk. It all comes down to what kind of light one is exposed to and when. Hint: bright blue light for waking and soft orange light to wind down.
Light’s Effect on Sleep
Most airplanes, even ones with sexy lighting like Dreamliners are not set up to help with jet lag. (I understand that the new NY-Sydney 19-hour non-stop on Qantas may be doing it.) Airline routines are designed to keep passengers docile and the meals delivered. Now that there is a better understanding of what jet lag is and the effect light can have, I can foresee a near future when hotel rooms and flights offer light optimized for time adjustment.
Using the Time Shifter app I found myself wearing dark sunglasses on some parts of the voyage, and staring into a bright blue computer screen at another time. It was a bit odd staring at a movie screen with my phone on full brightness in a darkened plane, but if there was any chance that I could reduce the crippling jet lag even a bit, I was going to do it.
A Marked Improvement
How did it work? Brilliantly! On the westbound leg, I was adjusted in just 2 days. On the dreaded eastbound leg, the app had me up at 3 am on the morning of the flight turning on all of the lights and working on my bright blue computer screen until the sun came up. It was very helpful that there were 2 rooms in our suite, and my non-Time-Shifter-using wife was only moderately annoyed at me being up at that time. On the plane, I was told to try to sleep, or at least stay quiet in the dark from 5 pm till 10 pm, at which point it was coffee time and get as much bright blue light as I could find. The result of following the routine was I became fully adjusted in 3 days, which is a miracle. Normally even in the best case, I can only shift an hour a day, and this was a 10-time-zone move from Singapore.
Final word: it is not 100% effective on me, but then I have a terrible time with jet lag. However, for the 85% improvement it gives me I will be using it on every trip I take.