Aging in Flight
You fly business class from LA to Beijing, sacrificing a college tuition payment for sixteen inches of leg room. Whisked to your hotel room you fall into bed and repeat attempted slumber.
When you wake you feel thirty years older. Then you open the blinds, look out on the smog, and drop into bed again.
Welcome to the world of jet lag.
Why Do People Get Jet Lag?
You’ve blown out your body’s internal clocks – especially the 24 hour ones. When night becomes day and day becomes night, lots of physiology does not work properly.
Why Do People Have Body Clocks?
Blame the sun – the source of much that propels our lives. We live off the sun for food (photosynthesis) and energy. The sun even powers your car and cell phone (coal, oil, natural gas – they’re just dead plants powered by past sunlight we dig up and burn.)
Our world cycles through night and day – very different environments. Our body is set up to adapt to these environmental changes internally. Precise 24 hour clocks govern, well, pretty much everything you do.
So when your body thinks it’s midnight and your cell phone chime announces it’s 9 A.M. you have found yourself in the wrong physiological world.
Another way to understand all this is to recognize you’re a marvelously complicated – and living – information system. Every information system – computer, cell phone, your local IRS help office – needs a timer to work well. Body clocks are those timers – and they range from millisecond speed clocks to those that assess years and lifetimes.
Do We Have Lots of Biological Clocks?
Trillions and trillions inside us. Probably every one of your 10 trillion cells has at least one clock – a 24 hour one. Now add in the 100 trillion bacteria in your gut. So there are plenty of clocks to go around. For you to work properly they need to be synchronized.
Much of the time the 24 hour synchronizing signals come from a small group of cells in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei. They help tell your body where you are to the minute, hour, day, and year.
What Happens to Cause Jet Lag?
Not only are the clocks out of phase – unsynchronized with where your body actually resides. Your clocks are also not resynchronizing at the same speed..
For cells aren’t the only tissues that possess clocks. So do organs. Michael Menaker and others have demonstrated that under h jet lag, your organs don’t adjust to the new time at the same rate.
So during your next day in Beijing your liver thinks it’s noon, your lungs think it’s 9:30 AM, and your spleen doesn’t know what to think. And you feel thirty years older.
Is There a Way to Cure Jet Lag?
In fact, there are many “cures.” International travelers try to shift their meals to the times of their destination. That’s why you’re having breakfast at your hotel at what your body thinks is 11 at night. No wonder those eggs look woozy.
Other time traveled remedies include booze (quantities vary) and sleeping pills. Most people with jet lag think their bodies should be fine if they can just get sufficient sleep. Sadly, though sleep matters a lot, they’re not correct in that assumption.
Two things that really work to reduce jet lag symptoms are melatonin and light. Melatonin is the hormone of darkness. Ingest it at just the right schedule and it may help you get a jump of an hour or two on jet lag.
Yet the body’s real time giver is light. It’s all about the sun, right? Give sunlight – or artificial light – at the right times and you can shift clocks. But only to a certain point.
Why Are British Scientists Claiming They Might Fix Jet Lag?
Light can reset clocks, but have clear limits in their capacity. Researchers at Oxford have discovered that a couple of proteins – CREB regulation transcription coactivator 1 and salt inducible kinase 1 (SIK1 – you can call it Sick One) can be manipulated to make clocks reset more quickly in rodents. Cutting the production of SIK1 particularly helps.
Will Changing Enzymes Shift Clocks In Humans?
Wait and see. There will undoubtedly be drugs developed to cut back on the production of SIK1. But you should expect that they will have wide ranging side effects.
Turning off enzymes has unpredictable knock-on results. Plus body clocks affect all cell processes. Change one thing and you’ll change a lot of others.
So How Do I Fix Jet Lag?
Respect your clocks. Time rules life. You and I did not evolve to fly half way around the world and immediately start the workday.
But light will shift body clocks – if you know when to use it. Melatonin can help. Changing meal times may help.
And an understanding of how your body remakes itself – and uses time – possesses multiple dividends, letting your body work its best at the best times – and rest to rebuild and restore.
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