Jet Lag Sinks Trips

May 16, 2011

Torah Kachur

Torah On Location in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.


Jet lag - I hate you.


I'm so incredibly tired right now and jet lag routinely takes 3 days off either side of a trip and wastes our precious vacation time.  Jet lag is when you screw up your natural circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle).  Our bodies are trained by a variety of cues to sleep during defined and regular periods. 


The most obvious cue for regulating circadian rhythm is light and there are specific photo receptors in the skin and eye that interpret light signals and turn them into chemical signals that regulate genes involved in your internal clock.  These pigments are called cryptochromes.


You can also find some of these pigments  in the brain, something that hopefully is never exposed to natural light.  The superchiasmatic nucleus is buried deep in the brain and is a seemlingly unlikely place for photopigments.  This location is actually an artifact of evolution, where the vast majority of 'primitive' brains are in transparent animals and so circadian rhythm can be regulated directly in the brain.


          Circadian rhythm Superchiasmatic nucleus Science in Seconds    


A gene called period is a central player in regulating the genetic cascade in a 24 daily cycle.  Period was first discovered in flies, like pretty much all genetic discoveries (except the really important ones that are all discovered in worms) and mutants were found to be unable to control a normal wake-sleep cycle.... kinda like me right now.


Controlling the length of the rhythm is accomplished by negative feedback loops where no gene product is ever allowed to build up too much thus controlling the lengh of one half of the cycle.  It is a simple genetic pathway that can be put on autopilot but other inputs like light and forced sleep that occurs in shift work can also change the genetic patterns.


There is no 'cure' for jet lag or anyone to really lessen the effects.  Some people who are particularly committed to not forcing their body into overdrive, like Olympic athletes for example, can slowly adjust to their new time zone before leaving home by changing their clocks slowly towards the next time zone one hour every few days or so.  There will reach a limit to where the light can override the forced rhythm..not to mention something called a 'job'.


When you screw up a natural rhythm and expect it to reset, like in a rapid change in time zones, your body has trouble adjusting and you wake up in a hostel room at 4am with absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go for 4 hours....not to mention trying to be as quiet as a church mouse.  While some people can claim to be able to work shift work with no hiccup to their mental acuity or overall temperment (insert very non-PC joke about sleep-starved healthcare workers), people who work shift work are just more able to fall asleep anywhere and at anytime as opposed to having irregular or more efficient genetic regulation. 


It's 6pm and I'm DYING for bed, so that's it, next trip I'm choosing somewhere in the same time zone (Las Vegas anyone?? Boring!) or exactly 24hrs time difference away....down the street from home I guess.



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