Compete Network Feature Stories

It’s About Time (Zones)

Featured in the April/ May 2018 Travel Issue of Compete Magazine

First, the good news: Gay Games X is being held in Paris this August. The bad news? Traveling from the U.S. to Paris will guarantee that we arrive at the Games jet lagged. So what exactly is jet lag and how do we fix it?

 

Blame jet lag on the moon, that handy object that popped up in our sky four and a half billion years ago. Before there was a moon, one earth day was only four hours long. Now fast forward 30,000 years – a day on earth has now lengthened to six hours due to inertial drag. And by the time bacteria appear, a day lasts up to 12 hours.

 

Homo sapiens are latecomers to the party, however. We arrive to find our days lasting for 24 hours, and it’s this last time interval that eventually becomes programmed into our 10 trillion cells and coordinates their interactions.

 

Though this circadian rhythm is referred to as an “internal clock,” it’s actually linked to the external world through our eyeballs’ connections to 20,000 specialized brain cells. These cells readjust our internal clock daily to the “first light to first light” interval that our eyes detect in external physical reality. It’s an elegant system that assures the synchronization of inner time with time in the external world.

 

Of course this mechanism evolved over eons in animals that moved at “normal” velocities, not the 550 mph cruising speed of a Boeing 747. So what happens if we travel to Paris from New York flying at that velocity?

 

If we leave New York at 4:30 p.m., we’ll arrive seven hours and 30 minutes later – that’s midnight on New York time. But since clocks in Paris are six hours ahead of those in New York, it’s six a.m. in the City of Light. Our internal (New York) clock is saying “It’s bedtime” while the external world (Paris) is telling our brain, “C’est l’heure de se réveiller” or “time to wake up.” Brain and reality are not in alignment!

 

The neurons in the brain’s clock mediate deep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and the effects of physical fatigue. Not surprisingly, we experience symptoms of fatigue, disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability and digestive distress result when we confuse them. So what’s a body to do?

 

In the Days Prior to Travel

One helpful approach is to regulate our light exposure using this general rule in the days prior to our travel:

  • Traveling EAST – increase morning light exposure and decrease evening light exposure
  • Traveling WEST – do the opposite and decrease exposure to light in the morning and increase it later in the day.

 

In heavily sunny areas like Phoenix in August, several days before flying to Paris I would get outdoors earlier every morning while wearing dark glasses, and in the evening I’d stay indoors and go to bed early. The theory is simple: changing the timing of light exposure resets the brain’s master timekeeper in the direction of conditions in Paris.

 

The website www.jetlagrooster.com provides a calculator to help us time our light exposure. It also sells dark glasses and light boxes for those living someplace where the sun doesn’t shine. We can’t eliminate jet lag, but with some advance planning we can help ameliorate it for a happier trip.

By Dr. John Sutherland

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