Jet Lag, How I Loathe Thee

August 6, 2012

Brit Trogen

It's 3:00 p.m... But your body thinks it's 4:00 a.m.



Welcome to hell.


Most people have experienced jet lag at one time or another. After a long overseas flight or even just a quick jaunt across the continent you may find yourself feeling vaguely out of sync. Sometimes the effects are hard to pinpoint—a slight grogginess or lack of energy. Other times, like when you're fast asleep at two in the afternoon, it's not so hard.


Jet lag is in its essence a disruption of circadian rhythm. Researchers at the University of Washington have narrowed the problem down to two groups of nerves in the base of your brain: the ventral nerves, which respond directly to light-dark cycles, and the dorsal nerves, which are linked to REM sleep. Normally these cells act in unison to synchronize your sleep schedule to the cycle of day.


But a shift in time zone can throw them out of whack. While your ventral nerves will adapt to the new light-dark cycle in addition to your bodily fatigue, the dorsal nerves remain stubbornly attached to your original schedule. This means that while your body will still enter deep sleep, you won't undergo REM cycles, which is why you may find it impossible to feel fully refreshed throughout the day. Blame it on our ancient hominid ancestors who evolved without the influence of trans-continental flights.


There are a few scientitifically sound methods you can use to try to escape from this effect. Studies in mice have indicated you may be able to hijack your circadian clock by making changes in your meal-times. By undergoing a period of starvation for about 16 hours (during the time you're trying to stay awake) followed by refeeding (immediately before you want to sleep), it's possible to reset your circadian clock instantly. The reason for this could be a built-in override that takes over when food is scarce; your body doesn't want you sleeping through any opportunities to eat. There's also some evidence to suggest that physical activity can have a similar effect.


Of course, some people may not see starving and exercising as their idea of a perfect vacation. If that's the case, anecdotal evidence (backed up by studies in rats) suggest that it will take the same number of days to recover from jet lag as hours you've shifted. Unfortunately, when you have a two week vacation to get over a 13-hour time difference, that doesn't give you much to work with.


Guess I'd better hit the gym.



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