The human body clock is able to cope with a far more punishing international flight itinerary than scientists realised, unique Australian research has revealed.
Sydney businessman Matthais Fuchs gave new meaning to the phrase ‘frequent flyer’ when he took to the skies 16 times over 12 consecutive days on international flights spanning six continents. The 50-year-old’s charity flying marathon raised over $200,000 for cystic fibrosis but also gave sleep researchers a unique opportunity to better understand sleep and the human body clock.
Specialists at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Australia’s leading sleep and respiratory research centre, gathered data from Matthais’s 191 hours of flying through 144 time zones, with fascinating results.
“It was truly remarkable to see how well he could bounce back after getting little or no sleep on some flights,” says Dr Christopher Gordon, chief investigator of the study, published in The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research. “It proves that, generally speaking, our internal body clocks are far more robust and adaptable than we would have thought.”
Matthais jetted off on his trip in November 2015 wearing an Actiwatch to monitor his sleep and schedule. He kept a sleep diary throughout, and noted his subjective alertness, fatigue and sleepiness every four hours if awake during flights. Researchers estimated body clock changes using an alertness model that predicts circadian core temperature minimum.
Results showed that despite a huge number of time zone changes, Matthais’s circadian clock did not alter much. “His sleep-wake cycles were also pretty robust despite the lack of sleep on some flights,” Associate Professor Gordon says. “He was more fatigued and less alert on the longer flights but we found levels quickly bounced back to those seen on the flights where he slept.”
The findings are the first to give insight into how the human body handles extreme flying situations. Dr Gordon acknowledges the flying marathon is an extreme frequent flyer experience, as Matthais spent very little time on the ground, and didn’t have to work on his flights or navigate busy airports, as many other travellers must do.
“Our findings are still very useful though, as they tell us that we can predict how someone’s body clock will react under different flying conditions, even extreme ones like this,” the expert says.
Based on the results, researchers were able to offer up some valuable tips for frequent flyers to support the body clock and ease jet lag on long haul flights.
“We know that getting bright light in your destination as soon as possible helps with adjusting the clock,” Associate Professor Gordon says. “You should also try and sleep on the plane with the corresponding time zone where you are flying to. This will be better if you’re flying west from Australia as this flies ‘with time’, not against it.
Avoiding alcohol and limiting the amount of food you eat will also help. “Finally, if you sleep on the plane when you should be awake, taking sleep medication at your destination may help.”
The team are now carrying out new jet lag research that focuses on what travellers can do during the flight and immediately after to relieve fatigue.
The paper, entitled ‘The effect of consecutive transmeridian flights on alertness, sleep–wake cycles and sleepiness: A case study’, can be viewed here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07420528.2018.1493597?journalCode=icbi20.
Top Tips For Jet Lag
- If possible, try scheduling flights during Sydney night time to align with your body clock
- Some sleep is better than no sleep. Taking a sleeping pill can help with adjusting sleep timing
- Monitor how much sleep you get before and after flying
- Reducing light exposure during flights can help with adjusting sleep schedules