Jan. 10, 2013 at 12:05 PM ET
There are zombies among us. Look up any traveler who’s just flown across several time zones, and you’ll find an irritable, lifeless creature that wilts during the day and roams about at night.
Ah, the agony of jet lag.
But a new online tool wants to help, working on the principle that strategic exposure to – and avoidance of – light can adjust your biological clock and make jetting around a bit easier on your body.
Jet Lag Rooster invites you to plug in your trip itinerary, the times you usually go to sleep and awaken, and whether you’d like to start shifting your slumber schedule before you leave or when you arrive, and the free service calculates the optimal times – down to the hour – when you should seek light, and when you should avoid it.
The site was launched on New Year’s Day by Jay Olson, a researcher at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, who said he was inspired to look for a remedy after traveling to Greece and struggling to adjust to his new time zone.
“That first week that I was there, I was entirely jet lagged. I would sleep all afternoon and I would be awake most of the night,” Olson told NBC News. “Jet lag is something that had always affected me quite a bit.”
So Olson set out to find a solution. Bright light was key because it is one of the main factors that keep our bodies in sync with the environment, he said. Light in the early morning makes you wake up earlier, while light around bed time makes you wake up later, Olson wrote in an article last week in Scientific American.
Using research that precisely identified when to seek or avoid light to shift the body clock, he developed an algorithm that he hopes is more user-friendly for fliers who don’t want to do all the calculations themselves.
The website offers good, practical information that would be helpful for travelers, said Dr. William Kohler, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill, Fla. He urged globetrotters to also consider using melatonin, but said light plays crucial role.
“The timing of the light is super important,” Kohler said. “The body is regulated by our circadian clock ... when we get to the new destination, our biological clock is out of sync with the environment we’re in, so it makes it more difficult for us to get the proper rest that we need.”
Jet lag has serious physical consequences, Kohler noted, including fatigue, cognitive problems, and problems with the gastrointestinal tract – a polite way of saying your bathroom routine may be disrupted.
The condition also decreases athletic ability and can increase depression, Kohler said.
“Jet lag affects so many of us,” he added. “It deteriorates the enjoyment of the trip we’re going on.”
Olson hopes travelers can avoid those unpleasant consequences by following the custom “jet lag plan” produced by his website. When it suggests exposure to light, sunlight works best, but a portable light box can also help, he said. When it advises to avoid light, close the curtains, shut off the lights, or put on a sleep mask.
If you don’t want to start the routine before your trip, you can still minimize the effects of jet lag if you follow the plan after your arrive at your destination, Olson said.
He named the service “Jet Lag Rooster” in honor of the bird that has for centuries signaled the start of the day. The site is a web-based tool for now – he’s not sure whether he’ll develop a smartphone app.
How well it works depends on the length of your flight. Follow the plan and you may not experience any jet lag on shorter trips, Olson said. For longer itineraries, the point is to reduce jet lag, he noted.