Shock Around the Bio-Clock: Notes on Jet Lag
- Published on Tuesday, 27 November 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Dazed and Disoriented
(Even More than Usual)
I’ve been sitting in one of these things for so long, I don’t know if it’s day or night...
Lately I’ve been keeping irregular hours, sleeping in my clothes, neglecting corporeal hygiene and letting my teeth get all fuzzy. Not because I’ve been evicted and am living in the Métro, but because I’ve been on a trip to the United States. Which of course means enduring long flights across the Atlantic. Which of course means crossing time zones. Which of course means experiencing a disruption of the photosensitive secretion of melatonin in the pineal gland, which in turn disrupts the sleep cycle, hunger reflex and body-temperature regulation mechanism.
This is the condition commonly known to laymen as “jet lag,” and officially known to professionals in the medical sciences as circadian coitusupitis.
Although travelers have been crossing time zones since before there were time zones, jet lag is a relatively recent concept because its symptoms are only noticeable when the longitudinal displacement takes place relatively quickly. A century ago, no one complained about “liner lag,” because travel by ship leaves plenty of time to adjust. And half a century ago, no one thought much about “prop lag” either, presumably because a long trip by propeller plane was so time-consuming, uncomfortable, noisy and dangerous that a disruption of the sleep cycle was a welcome distraction.
As with scotch, cigars and sex, one’s first experience with jet lag tends to be the least pleasant. The first time I came to France as a tourist, in 1979, I was in my mid-20s and had never been more than two time zones away from the Midwest, where I grew up. I was traveling with four friends, only one of whom had been overseas before.
We flew out of New York and arrived in Paris at 10 a.m. feeling like it was time for a good night’s sleep. But we wanted to get on schedule and agreed that we would only take a short nap once we got our hotel rooms and then stay awake the rest of the day.
Which we did, and it seemed to work. In any case, we dragged around town that first afternoon, saw a few sights and dutifully ate dinner that evening, although without much enthusiasm. I was so beat by bedtime, I slept right through the night and woke up the next morning feeling pretty much attuned to local time and congratulating myself for being such a hardy traveler.
I had plenty of energy on day two, and went back to the hotel that night thinking that jet lag wasn’t such a big deal after all. I got into bed expecting to drift instantly off to sleep on French time like a Frenchman. And lay there wide awake for nine hours, staring into the French blackness like a French meth addict.
The next morning at breakfast, I was ashamed to admit that I was less of a seasoned globetrotter than I had thought, but when I announced, “Guys, I have to tell you – I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” all four of my friends said, “I didn’t either.”
We spent the day gamely trying to adjust by forcing ourselves to remain active and eating full meals at regular local mealtimes. And coming to a new understanding of the term “exhausted.”
Conversation was limited, appetites were low, and every time we came within 20 meters of an empty public bench, all five of us, with no prior discussion, headed for it as though drawn by a powerful magnetic field and plopped down, our spines and limbs conforming to the shape of the seat like so much overcooked spaghetti.
As I recall, it took me six days before I felt like I was really on French time. This is consistent with the conventional wisdom about jet lag, which holds that one should allow one day of recuperation per time zone traversed.
The unconventional wisdom, on the other hand, offers a whole panoply of jet lag “cures,” including the following:
1) Pre-adjusting to the destination time zone before your trip.
2) Taking melatonin supplements.
3) Observing a strict diet, abstaining from alcohol and getting a good workout every day.
4) Drinking warm milk infused with mashed garlic cloves.
I have serious objections to all of these solutions, to wit:
1) It’s impractical – it implies that you’re going to spend your trip re-pre-adjusting back to your home time zone.
2) It’s illegal – the sale of melatonin is banned in both the United States and Europe.
3) Yeah, right.
4) Just shoot me.
One of the oddest proposed remedies is, no kidding, shining a bright light on the back of the knees. This method was tested by a research team at Cornell University and explained in an article in Science Magazine in 1998. And widely dismissed since then as the irreproducible result of flawed methodology.
Nonetheless, the basic idea is not completely out to déjeuner. As mentioned above, it’s melatonin that regulates our bio-clocks, and the secretion of melatonin is activated by exposure to daylight. So a substitute for daylight would presumably help get the old hormone flowing like bio-clockwork.
A more recent variation of illumination therapy involves the use of a “light box.” The article I found about it explains that exposure to the wide-spectrum light from this special apparatus will reset the body’s internal clock with 15 to 30 minutes of exposure per day, in the evening if you’ve traveled west and in the morning if you’ve traveled east.
I have problems with this method as well, for three reasons:
1) It requires the use of a bulky, energy-consuming device that doesn’t look like it would fit easily into an overhead compartment and would very likely result in an awkward conversation with the Transport Security Administration.
2) It also requires you to wear special blue-light-blocking glasses for part of the day, which would no doubt make you look like a Roy Orbison imitator at a Star Trek convention.
3) The instructions recommend following this regime for “one day for every time zone crossed.” Hey! Haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
My recent trip to the Midwest, which is seven zones behind Paris time, therefore provides a textbook example. The night I arrived, I got very tired at about 10 p.m., fell asleep right away, slept for four hours, woke up and then tossed and turned the rest of the night.
The next night, I got very tired at about 10 p.m., fell asleep right away, slept for four hours, woke up and then tossed and turned the rest of the night. And the next night. And the next. And... etc.
I spent the entire week feeling tired every day and sleeping fitfully every night – until day seven, when I finally got a normal eight hours of sleep.
Whereupon it was time to fly back to France. On my first night back in Paris, I got very tired at about 10 p.m., fell asleep right away, slept for four hours, woke up and then... fell back to sleep, slept through the night and got up at my usual time in the morning feeling normal and ready for a croissant.
This experience, plus that first trip to France when my body stayed on Eastern Daylight Time for longer than I had expected, leads me to conclude that there is a sort of home-field advantage involved in jet lag, a trigger in the brain that makes it easier to adjust back to your usual time zone than to get used to a new one.
So, after years of experimentation, observation and field testing, I am at last ready to reveal:
The C’est Ironique Three-Step Jet Lag Cure
Step 1) Move to the target time zone.
Step 2) Stay for 25 years.
Step 3) Repeat as necessary.
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Reader Rick Baer writes: "Thanks for the humorous article on jet lag, but in addition to looking back on its history (liner lag), you may want to look ahead to its future: beam lag. In the future, when people use Star Trek-style transporter beams ("Beam me up, Scottie!"), they'll be able to travel from point to point at the speed of light. I guess when they arrive at their destination, they'll receive an inoculation of synthetic melatonin from either Dr. McCoy (original Star Trek series) or Dr. Crusher (Start Trek Next Generation). While this should alleviate the symptoms you describe, there may be new, more serious symptoms of beam lag. A couple of scenarios:
"1. Senior citizens retired in Florida decide that for their Early Bird special, they'll beam to the restaurant Spring in Paris. For the seniors, it's 17:00, but for the wait staff, it's 23:00. How will the staff handle customers in plaid pants and white shoes at that hour?
"2. Agricultural professionals in a small town in Iowa stop for a lunch break at noon and beam to La Rive Gauche. Where will they find a café serving Reuben sandwiches on rye at 19:00?
"Alas, the future won't solve all of our problems."
Reader Clark Taylor writes: "I'm here to say that melatonin is not illegal in New York City. It's over-the-counter available in Duane Reade, CVS, etc. drugstores all over Manhattan. As I don't need more than one bottle at a time, I haven't gone looking in other boroughs nor in other states, since I get my fix immediately in La Grosse Pomme."
David Jaggard responds: "Mr. Taylor is right: products containing melatonin have been legal in the United States since the mid-1990s. If I hadn't been so jet-lagged, it would have occurred to me to check instead of relying on my melatonin-deprived memory."
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