As any frequent flyer will attest, you can’t go hurling yourself across multiple time zones without suffering the consequences. You’re wide awake at 2 am and zombie-eyed by morning. When your internal clock no longer matches the time on your wrist, that’s jet lag. It can take days to recover from, and then, just when you do, it’s time to turn around and fly right back home.
What’s more annoying, the severity of jet lag isn’t always proportional to the distance traveled. As someone who regularly flies between the coasts, I’m sometimes amazed that a measly three-hour difference can so thoroughly wreck my circadian rhythm, while a nine-hour leap from Los Angeles to Stockholm barely registers.
How to Avoid Jet Lag with Timeshifter
There have long been lotions, potions, pills, and superstitions for curing jet lag. Now, as with any modern problem, there are apps designed to help passengers bounce back after a long flight.
One such app, Timeshifter, aims to do this by way of personalized schedules for sleep, access to sunlight, caffeine, and, if you’d like, melatonin. Sleep and wake times are staggered based on your itinerary and other factors unique to the traveler’s personal preferences. The trick is to slowly transition your body’s circadian responses over the course of several days, without being overly disruptive, and, if all goes as planned, avoid the hard jolt of jet lag.
I had the chance to test out Timeshifter for myself on a recent flight from Warsaw to Los Angeles. My total travel time was 18 hours and 20 minutes, four hours of which were spent connecting through London Heathrow.
Excited to begin, I entered my itinerary and personal data into the Timeshifter app a full week in advance and eagerly awaited instruction.
Three days prior to my flight, things got off to a dodgy start while having breakfast at a cafe. I made a point to order the strongest coffee I could find and, just as I raised the mug to my lips, Timeshifter intervenes with my very first notification. Avoid caffeine for the next several hours, it said.
On day two, the alerts came with much more frequency, and, unlike the first, were easy to abide by. I did manage to avoid all caffeine. Later that evening, Timeshifter recommended exposure to bright light, which I interpreted as an excuse to binge-watch "The Crown" at maximum brightness.
At around 9 p.m. on the night before my departure, Timeshifter suggested I get some sleep. Younger users—or anyone curious about Warsaw’s nightlife—might object to an early bedtime. Not me. On a frigid Varsovian winter’s night, I was happy to oblige. Plus, my early a.m. flight coincided with Timeshifter’s suggestion that I wake up at 6 a.m.
The only other instruction I flubbed, apart from my initial coffee blunder, involved Timeshifter’s alert to avoid sunlight for a few hours. A pair of dark glasses will suffice, but I couldn’t bring myself to be the Californian who refuses to remove their shades even in overcast Warsaw.
Timeshifter users can opt to include melatonin in their routine, a supplement that helps regulate sleep. Because I was already traveling and had no melatonin handy, I chose to go without.
Do Jet Lag Apps Work?
Transporting yourself across the Earth in a single day is bound to leave a person feeling a little weird, a little out-of-body, a little depleted, and that’s true no matter what sort of routine you adhere to. This time around, however, I felt noticeably less wonky on my return home. Aside from waking an hour earlier than usual for about a week, I was able to resume my normal sleep patterns without having to take a sleep aid. A rarity! There was no nodding off mid-afternoon at my desk. Taking Timeshifter’s advice, or most of it anyway, did seem to greatly minimize my jet lag.
Outside of what the app advises, travelers should be aware that the type of aircraft you fly can also have some bearing on how jet-lagged you feel. I deliberately booked my return on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner knowing that the higher cabin pressure and increased humidity reduce jet lag.
Based on nothing but my own unscientific hunch, I do suspect eliminating the ups and downs associated with caffeine played a big part in the plan’s success. And again, choosing an aircraft with improved air quality, like the Dreamliner, surely also contributed to my ability to adjust so quickly. Whatever it was, the results were good enough to warrant another trip with Timeshifter. An annual subscription can be purchased for $24.99, which includes unlimited jet lag plans, while infrequent travelers can pay $9.99 for roundtrips, one-ways, or multi-city itineraries.
Other Ways to Avoid Jet Lag
While Timeshifter tailors its program to the habits of the individual, the general science around these routines can be put to use by any disciplined person with a long flight coming up. The Harvard Medical School suggests these tips:
- In the days prior to departure, shift meals and bedtime to slowly align to the schedule you’ll take on at your destination.
- Drink plenty of water and avoid booze and coffee before, during, and shortly after travel. It may be hard for some to curb their coffee consumption but doing so can make a big difference in how well you recover. Do yourself a favor and order a decaf instead. Stimulants like caffeine will only further disrupt your sleep cycle.
- As tired as you may be on arrival, try to resist sleeping until later in the night. The goal is to fall asleep as close to your new bedtime as possible.
- Regulate your exposure to light. Wake up with the sun and get plenty of morning and afternoon light. Likewise, it’s probably a good idea to avoid bright screens before bedtime, so give yourself a break from pre-bed social media scrolling while you adjust.
The Jet Lag Diet
Aside from overpriced subpar food, there may be another reason to avoid eating while traveling. Dr. Clifford Saper of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center suggests that passengers may be able to hack their own circadian rhythms by fasting for 12 to 16 hours the day before and during travel. It’s important to note that anyone attempting this should take into account any existing health concerns and, should you deem it safe to proceed, drink plenty of water while fasting.
Whether asked or not, your fellow travelers are usually more than happy to share their personal successes in the battle against jet lag. Of course, what works for one person may not work for another. Some swear by prescription sleep medications like Ambien, Lunesta, and Halcion. Others prefer homeopathic remedies such as valerian root or supplements. Chewable pills like No Jet Lag may have thousands of positive reviews on Amazon but keep in mind that it has yet to be evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Taking Melatonin for Jet Lag
Your body already produces melatonin to help regulate your sleep. Melatonin taken as a sleep aid will signal to your body that it’s bedtime, even when taken at a time of day that you don’t normally sleep. Taking it won’t knock you out cold like Ambien, but it will relax you enough to the point of being able to sleep naturally.
The Mayo Clinic recommends taking small doses of up to five milligrams of melatonin in the days leading up to your trip, at around the local bedtime of where you’ll be traveling. So, if you’re living in San Francisco with plans to fly to Paris, you would take your melatonin at 2 p.m., which is 11 p.m. in Paris.
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