NASA astronauts swear by this jet lag app. Does it actually work?

It’s 2am and I’m sprawled on the living room couch, attempting (unsuccessfully) to read a book by candlelight while wearing sunglasses.

I don’t usually roam around my darkened house in the middle of the night like a Victorian-era ghost, but I have a schedule to follow. 

In a few hours I’ll be whisked to Melbourne Airport to catch the first of four planes, hopscotching to Buenos Aires via Sydney, Auckland and Santiago.

All told, I’ll ratchet up nearly 24 hours in transit, with no business lounge access or seat upgrades. And while it might be the middle of the night here, it’s currently only noon in the Argentine capital.

Jet lag has been the bane of every traveller’s existence since the first commercial flights leapt into the sky in 1933.

As a frequent flyer I’m all too familiar with its lethargic hold, which is why this time, staring down the barrel of multiple international flights, I’m attempting to game the system using science. 

Humans are creatures of light, and we have an internal body clock that keeps us in sync with dawn and dusk.

It’s called our circadian rhythm and it affects our appetite, body temperature, immune system and levels of sleepiness. When we travel between time zones, we experience circadian dysrhythmia – a sleep disorder where our body clock becomes temporarily confused, aka jet lag. 

At best you feel a little tired. At worst, you become a zombie shuffling down the Champs-Élysées on your big Paris holiday. 

Jet lag hotel

Jet lag – a poor use of valuable holiday time. Photo: Getty

In the lead up to my Argentina trip, I discovered the app Timeshifter, which NASA astronauts used to road test the app while in orbit. One astronaut says they can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Despite the app being literally built on rocket science, I’m still somewhat sceptical, so I decide to test it myself – partly convinced by the fact it’s free to use for your first trip. 

Once downloaded to my phone, I start by entering the flight codes of my trip and it automatically populates my itinerary. Next, I create my ‘circadian profile’, sharing my normal sleeping and waking hours, age, gender and whether I use any caffeine or melatonin supplements.

Up pops a tailored schedule, telling me when to eat, sleep, drink coffee and – most importantly – avoid light. Even the light from our TV and phones can influence the circadian rhythm, so if I’m going to beat jet lag, I’ll need to be as light sensitive as a vampire. 

Things start easy enough the day before I set off. I’m permitted two coffees (win) during the day, but miss my prescribed one-hour midday nap due to work deadlines. I go to bed at 11pm and rise again at 2am – a punishingly short sleep, even for a new father like me.  

With all devices off limits, I take the dog out, read, do some stretches and generally haunt the candlelit corridors.

One silver lining is that I’m already up to feed and settle our newborn son: A small blessing for my partner as I’m about to leave her for a couple of weeks. At dawn, my taxi arrives to whisk me to the airport.

The first flight to Sydney is uneventful, but Timeshifter forbids me from having coffee so the struggle is real by the time I depart for Auckland at 11am. Resisting the Sandman, I inject myself with adrenaline by watching back-to-back serial killer documentaries. My body is aching for sleep by the time I slump into my LATAM seat on the big leap to Santiago. 

It’s at this point that I discover a critical flaw in the method: The app expects me to sleep almost the whole 11 hours to Santiago.

I make it to five hours, then slip in and out of consciousness until breakfast, at which point I’m crestfallen to learn the airline doesn’t offer coffee on this service. I get the next most caffeinated item I can ask for – a coke. Not a drink I’d choose for breakfast under normal circumstances. 

Coke on flight

In-flight breakfast of champions. Photo: Getty

My instructions are now to get as much light exposure as possible, but the plane is completely dark. To the annoyance of everyone around me, I switch on my overhead lights and turn the seat-back screen to max brightness, which I then ignore while I watch a show on my phone. So far, I’m feeling good.

I touch down in Santiago and, after spending an easy afternoon in the airport, board my short connecting flight to Buenos Aires. Nearly two days after leaving home, it’s sunset by the time I get to my hotel in Recoleta. 

I’m tired but alert, and when I meet the group of Australians I’ll be travelling with, they all seem markedly more exhausted than I am. Then, incredibly, I sleep a full eight hours that night. 

So, did Timeshifter really banish jet lag? 

Having travelled to South America before, I arrived much more alert on this occasion, and the full night sleep was a major win for the start of a trip. 

The main drawback is that the app’s schedule makes some big asks at times, like sitting in the dark for four hours in the middle of the night or getting an 11-hour chunk of shut-eye. 

If you struggle to sleep on planes, it likely won’t do much for you. But if you like haunting your house like a ghoul, boy, do I have an app for you. 

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