A brief history of jet lag
In 1952 the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) began the world’s first commercial jet service with the 44-seat Comet 1A. For the first time ever, people could cross continents at 480 mph, a record speed at the time. Jet travel forever changed the world, revolutionising business, communication, social + leisure opportunities and so much more.
But whilst the aviation companies marketed jet travel as the ultimate in speed, comfort and convenience, a growing body of evidence was showing that travelling across time zones at hundreds of miler per hours could have detrimental effects on your health when you arrived at your destination. This condition, coined jet lag was first mentioned in the mainstream press in a Los Angeles Times article in February 1966, which explained that “jets travel so fast they leave your body rhythms behind.”
Jet lag – when clocks run amok
So what exactly is going on when we transport ourselves at such speed to a new time zone? To answer the question you need to consider human physiology in terms of a network of ‘clocks’ .Deep inside the brain, behind the pineal gland is a region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). In the past few decades, scientists have discovered that the SCN functions like our ‘master clock’, to use a metaphor, like the conductor in an orchestra. The conductor, in turn is responsible for the proper timing of a series of ‘sub-clocks’ which exist in all of our internal organs, and indeed in pretty much every individual cell in the body.
But here’s the important part. These clocks are just free running. Like an old-fashioned grandfather clock that needs its pendulum adjusted from time to time, our ‘body clocks’ need regular adjusting in order for us to stay healthy. And for hundreds of millennia our bodies have adapted to take their synchronisation cues primarily via from exposure to light – ie the 24 hour cycle of day and night.
As an example when the rising sun signals dawn, the early morning light is a beacon for the SCN to start secreting cortisol (sometimes called a ‘stress hormone’) to prompt us into action for the day. Similarly at the onset of darkness, the SCN sends out a different set of instructions, resulting in the release of melatonin – the hormone that readies us for sleep. Whilst light is our primary zeitgeber, other cues such as food intake, physical exercise and body temperature also act as timing signals for our wake/sleep rhythms.
Although sleep and wake timing are the most obviously visible outcomes of our body clocks (aka circadian rhythms), in reality this is just the tip of the iceberg. In recent decades, the emerging field of circadian biology is revolutionising old ideas of how we consider health and medicine in that essentially there’s no aspect of our wellness that isn’t impacted by timing and biological clocks.
So, when we suddenly reach a new timezone after a long flight, chaos ensues as our bodies rapidly try to reschedule all numerous biological processes at once. This, in a nutshell is the essence of what we experience as jet lag. The symptoms of jet lag predominantly manifest as sleep problems, ie difficulty falling asleep and staying awake at the appropriate times. But depending on how badly affected you are, jet lag may cause a host of other problems including brain fog, memory issues, mood swings, digestion/stomach problems and a lot more.
There’s no cure for jet lag…. or is there?
Over time, there have been plenty of attempts at convincing us that jet lag is a kind of disorder that can be ‘cured’ with crystals, walking barefoot on the grass, homeopathic tinctures and many more exotic suggestions.
But these remedies ignore a basic fact – that jet lag is not an illness, or a disease, it’s the simple fact that your body is out of time with itself. And the only ‘cure’ is to resynchronise your body to its new environment – ie the light/dark cycle, meal times and physical activity routines.
All that said……. whilst you can’t cure jet lag, you can certainly do a lot in terms of lessening the negative effects. Many of these are common sense tips such as sleeping on the plane if it’s night-time at your new destination. Others are more involved such as gradually adjusting your home schedule over a few days to match your new timezone. But what if you want to maximise your chances of beating jet lag? What if there were real evidence-backed products and devices that actually work – maybe not as a cure – but as a significant power-up in your jet-lag arsenal.
Lucky for you, we’ve rounded up some of the latest hi-tech (and lo-tech) gadgets and gizmos to beat jet lag and get you up and running in peak performance in the shortest time possible.
I first heard about the Timeshifter app back in 2019 when I cam across an interview between CEO Mickey Beyer-Clausen, renowned sleep scientist Dr Steven Lockley and ex NASA astronaut Mike Massimino. The trio were discussing some of the latest research in circadian science and how pro athletes, the business community and even NASA were applying these principles to optimize travel schedules and performance. Clausen and Lockley are the co-founders of TimeShifter, an app that for the first time puts these cutting-edge principles in the hands of everyday folks who are serious about tackling jet lag.
What’s unique about TimeShifter is that it creates individualised, actionable strategies to optimize your travel schedule based on your own data and flight times/locations. Once you’ve entered your information the app gives you specific instructions on how to adjust to the new time zone. Examples of these actions may include some or all of the following:
- Sleep during X hours
- Avoid bright light during X hours
- Take a nap at X time
- Take a melatonin supplement at X time
Light Therapy Wearables
Light as we’ve already discussed is the single most effective cue for the brain to adjust and synchronise our body clocks. It’s also the most visibly obvious indication of misalignment when you find yourself jet-lagged in the wrong time zone. It’s dark outside, but you feel wide awake. Or it’s 2pm, sunny and you can’t stay awake.
Light therapy (broadly, using bright light to treat various health conditions) has been around for a long time, but in the past 10 years, a new product class has entered the world of consumer technology – the light therapy wearable.
To understand what these wearables do, and how they work we must take a step back – the the 1980s. A new form of ‘winter depression’ had been discovered. It was coined Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, and brought about depressive symptoms and mood disorders due to the increased hours of darkness during winter months. In 1984 the NIH confirmed that bright light exposure in the morning was an effective treatment for SAD.
>> Read our comprehensive guide to light therapy glasses and wearables
So, joining the dots, because SAD can be thought of as a type of circadian rhythm disorder – whereby the change of season causes a disruption to the body clock – light therapy can also be effective at treating the effects of circadian disruption.
How it works in this context is that light therapy is used in the morning to simulate the alerting effect of the morning sun – aiding and kickstarting the body’s natural rhythms – reducing morning grogginess, aka sleep inertia, providing you with energy throughout the day, and giving your brain a clue as to where your natural bedtime should be.
Whereas in the past, light therapy used to be conducted with large, bright tabletop lights, nowadays we have more options in the form of wearable devices. I wrote a comprehensive overview of the best light therapy glasses on the market so I won’t go into huge detail here about the specifics. But generally the idea is that if you’re planning a flight across time zones and think you’re in danger of experiencing some jet lag, planning a light exposure routine, before, during and after your travels is one of the best, evidence-based ways to mitigate circadian disruption caused by crossing time zones.
Noise cancelling headphones and earbuds
Long distance travel is disruptive in many ways. Getting to the airport, long queues for check-in, security, boarding, stowing and only then can you relax into your flight. Or can you? Most times airline cabins are places to endure, not to relax in – unless you’re flying first class, that is. So if you want to get some precious zzzz’s on the plane, you’re most likely going to struggle in these cramped, noisy conditions.
One way to zone out and attempt to relax is by blocking out noise. I’m a huge fan of foam earplugs and I always try to take a few pairs when I’m travelling. But not everyone likes the sensation of squishing a piece of expandable foam in their ears – I get it.
Luckily there are lots of smart devices available these days that allow you to block out unwanted sound. For a comprehensive read, check out our in-depth guide to the best headphones for sleeping in 2023. But as a quick run-down, here are some of our favourite choices:
Best all-round noise cancelling headphones
If you’re not bothered about size or price, probably the best-in-class award goes to the Bose QuietComfort 45 – mainly for their superior noise cancelling abilities, smooth Bose sound quality and overall comfort. Whilst Bose has new models out such as the newer Headphones 700 the QC45 still has the edge in our opinion when it comes to travelling due to its fold up design. Runner up is Sony’s superb Sony WH-1000XM4
The biggest difference between normal NC headphones and sleeping earbuds are that the latter don’t let you play your own music. The Bose SleepBuds II help to relax you to sleep with passive noise cancelling and the ability to stream custom audio from the accompanying app. QuietOn 3 by contrast offer active noise cancellation in an extremely small form factor, optimized for comfort whilst you’re sleeping
Portable White Noise Machines
When you reach your destination, you never know how conducive to sleep your hotel, AirBnb or lodgings is going to be. Oftentimes you’ll be stuck in a room above a noisy street or restaurant, or perhaps there’s a loud air conditioning unit rattling away outside your window.
If there’s nothing you can do about your noisy room and earphones just don’t do it for you, one alternative is to use a white noise machine. White noise works because instead of blocking out external noise, the gentle ‘shush-ing’ sound masks the sound in your room. So a slamming door in the middle of the night becomes less of a sudden jolt, because of the constant background noise.
There are literally hundreds of different white noise devices available, including plenty of apps. But if you prefer not to use your phone at night, one of our favourites for travelling is the tiny, but perfectly formed LectroFan Micro 2 – ideally for
Block out the light with a sleep mask
Finally, probably the most lo-tech solution here, but when dealing with jet lag, it’s vital to understand that blocking light is just as important as getting exposure to bright light. Getting too much light when it’s the biological night in your new timezone will only prolong any circadian disruption you’re experiencing.
So whether you’re trying to snooze on the plane or nap in your hotel room – ideally you need the best blackout mask you can get your hands on. The thin, freebie types of masks you sometimes get on planes are better than nothing, but the problem with these is light leaking into your eyes via the top and bottom of the mask.
By far my favourite sleep mask is from Manta Sleep. I literally use this almost every night. It has a modular design with padded eyecups that you can move around to suit your face. It’s super comfy and blocks out 100% of the light.
We hope you enjoyed this roundup of our recommendations for the best hi-tech jet lag solutions. If you want to know more feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org