Protein: the secret behind jet lag

Taking a business trip? If you cross time zones you’ll probably be familiar with that foggy, befuddled feeling known as jet lag. Some people who watch rats very closely have a new theory on what causes it, as well as working on ways to combat it.

Next time you take a trip that includes stopovers in Beijing, Sydney, Lima and Chicago, don’t just blame the airline food and lack of legroom for your foggy state – it’s all in your head.

Brain has two centres of timekeeping
We’re all familiar with the term jet lag and the more learned travelers crammed into the average economy class cabin on a long haul might be able to mutter something about circadian rhythms if you ask them. Others might just tell you to leave them alone. For a more learned view, try Dr Horacio de la Iglesia of University of Washington, who believes the human brain has two centres of timekeeping – one is conscious of the updates you get from glancing at your watch, the other follows clues such as sunrise and sunset.

This may be how some people are instinctively able to predict time accurately – returning to the microwave oven seconds before it goes “bing!” to announce that their potato’s baked. Or perhaps they’re just really hungry.

Dr De la Iglesia however, writes in the magazine Current Biology that it’s when the two centres in the brain aren’t synchronized that the dreaded brain-stuffed-with-old-cheese feeling sets in.

He points to an area known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is thought to control sleep, temperature rhythms and hormone fluctuation in the body. It’s believed that the SCN also responds to external stimulus like the sun rising or setting. But the SCN may also be the site of another site dedicated to timekeeping, because it also seems to follow a regimented 24-hour cycle, even if the brain it’s in at the time is in say, Lapland, where it’s dark for what must seem like years at a time.

Lab rats and timekeeping
But back to the rodents: the researchers exposed rats to artificial days and nights that lasted, not 12 hours, but only 11. This meant that they would be increasingly out of kilter with real time. As this happened, the rats began to exhibit signs of daytime behaviour at night. Now for the protein: the researchers knew that the rats would have a protein called Perl in their SCNs during the day and another called Bmall at night. This was borne out by their normal daytime or night-time behaviour.

It was only when the rats started showing daytime-type behaviour (Wearing shades, daubing on sunblock, perhaps) at night that the researchers discovered both sorts of protein in the SCN.

How exactly one discovers what protein is present in which part of a rodent’s head is perhaps best not dwelt on. But what the researchers are confident about is the possibility of a drug that could help cancel out the dissonance between the part of the brain that’s saying “It’s 2 a.m. at home, let’s sleep,” and the part that says, “Don’t be stupid. It’s 6 p.m. in Paris, where we are now, it’s springtime and that’s the third time that waitress has smiled at me”.

So what can you do to minimize jet lag?

  • Try to have a workout before the flight. You’re more likely to sleep if you’re physically and mentally tired.
  • Speak to a doctor: ask about a natural remedies. They could help you sleep without sedating you.
  • As soon as you board your flight, set your watch to your destination’s time.
  • Relax. Fretting about how tired you’ll be if you don’t sleep, will only keep you awake. Remind yourself of the new “corpse” facility on the new Airbus A340-500. If all else fails, you’d have a modified coffin to yourself.
  • Avoid the temptation to sleep during the day at your destination. Try to spend some time in daylight instead.
  • Give your brain a chance. If you’re flying west, you’re more likely to be functional in the mornings at your destination. If you fly east, the evenings are when you’ll be most awake. Try to schedule meetings accordingly.
  • Some sleep gurus suggest that if you travel westward you should try to get at least one hour's worth of morning sunlight when you reach your destination. Writing for the journal of the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, Joan Rachel Goldberg suggests: “Before you travel, try waking and going to sleep an hour later for each time zone you'll cross. This would mean that instead of sleeping from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., you would sleep from midnight to 8 a.m., then 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. and - on the third night - from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. - not always easy to do. If you're traveling east, try doing the opposite.”
  • Stay hydrated. Too much alcohol will dry you out. Trying to drink yourself to sleep on the plane won’t be at all beneficial.

- William Smook, Health24

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