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Lagging? Here's the 411

Posted by Joshua Hebert on May 28, 2009 2:26:00 PM

Travelers flyingacross time zones should expect to experience jet lag. The fatigue, upsetstomach and disorientation that occurs is normal, says Dr. Andrea Meredith,assistant professor of physiology at the University of Maryland School ofMedicine.

 Question: Why do people feelso crummy when they move across time zones?

Answer: Jet lag. It isa disruption of the circadian rhythms. It happens when the body's clock and thedestination's clock are out of sync.

Question: Then jet lag ismore than a lack of sleep?

Answer: It's definitelymore than a lack of sleep. You can take a flight across the time zones, andeven if you sleep you can still experience symptoms of jet lag.

Question: What causesthese disruptions in the body's rhythms?

Answer: Light primarilydrives the brain clock. Because the brain's clock receives light informationabout the new time zone directly from your eyes, it actually shifts faster thanthe clocks in the rest of the body. Bodily tissues have their own clocks –liver, kidney, stomach, intestines, etc. Part of jet lag may be a misalignmentof the brain's clock and these peripheral clocks.

Question: What are thesymptoms?

Answer: The symptomsare fatigue, insomnia, gastrointestinal upset, headache, trouble focusing andgenerally feeling "out of whack."

Question: How long dosymptoms last?

Answer: It reallyvaries by individual, but there is a general rule of thumb that you can figureon about a day to shift per every time zone you travel through.

Question: How do peoplewho travel regularly cope with this?

Answer: Really, thepeople who are successful are those who try to stay in their own time zonesbehaviorally. If you fly to the West Coast and try to get up early like you'restill on East Coast time, you'll experience fewer symptoms. The worst is whenyou are flying to China, which is 13 hours off.

Question: Is jet lagworse going west to east or east to west?

Answer: Most people saygoing to the east is harder. The reason for that is most people find it harderto get up earlier.

Question: Is thereanything you can do to reduce the symptoms of jet lag?

Answer: There is somecontroversy about that because every person is different. Some people try topreshift to the other time zone. If you are going to be gone for a long time,it makes sense to preshift. If you are on a short trip, it makes sense to stayin the current time zone. Other people try other things: bright lights,pharmaceuticals such as melatonin or Provigil, caffeine or naps. Directly orindirectly, these things are ultimately going to affect the brain's clock.

Question: What do youadvocate?

Answer: I try to stayin my own time zone when traveling within the U.S. My advice is work with yournatural rhythm. There's a second thing I do. If you're going to travel toEurope, get up, start your sightseeing and engage in vigorous activity. Also,eat multiple small meals throughout the day. I feel less nauseated and morealert.

Question: Do certainkinds of food help?

Answer: There isanecdotal evidence that carbohydrate-rich foods will help, but it may be thatthey just make your brain feel good. One of the things we need to realize aboutcircadian rhythms is that there is a genetic component to them, and there is atremendous variability of what will work for each person. 

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