A Red Flag for Jetlag

By Del Quentin Wilber
The Washington Post

It’s the caged-mouse syndrome of air travel: You feel crammed into your seat on a long-distance flight with little to munch on except a bag of pretzels.

But you better hope you beat jetlag better than a mouse.

A study at the University of Virginia released during the height of the Christmas travel season showed that a majority of elderly mice died while being subjected to the equivalent of a Washington-to-Paris flight once a week for eight weeks. More intense forms of jetlag sped up the death rate in the elderly rodents, the study found.

For decades, flyers have stoically battled the modern-age problem of jetlag, viewing its accompanying grogginess, burning eyes, headaches, insomnia and fatigue as more of a nuisance than a potential health issue.

The study has focused new attention on the problem and raised questions about whether severe jetlag can harm health. It also has drawn attention to work by other researchers looking into ways to help vacationing families and business travelers avoid jetlag. The study is one of the first hard scientific looks into the health effects of jetlag, experts said.

The condition has become such a common scourge of the jet age that an entire industry has emerged on the internet, offering such solutions as acupressure kits, homeopathic pills and light-enhancing visors. Many travelers have invented their own treatments: slurping down gallons of coffee, dunking heads in ice-cold water, taking naps, jogging and popping sleeping pills and homeopathic remedies. But researchers say few of those remedies are backed by science.

In the study, younger mice seemed to rebound more quickly and were not immediately harmed by the jetlag. Simulated jetlag conditions were created by advancing and delaying the rodent’s exposure to light.

Researchers aren’t sure what conclusions to draw from the results.

Gene Block, the report’s co-author, said older mice might be more susceptible to sudden light changes than younger mice. Or, he said, jetlag might be a health problem that builds up in younger subjects, causing future maladies.

To further explore the issue, his researchers have launched another set of tests to determine whether jetlag causes long-term health consequences in younger and middle-age rodents, Block said, minutes before boarding a 14-hour flight to Japan from Washington.

“I feel like a subject in the experiment,” said the 58-year-old, who recently returned from a conference in Italy. “Like many people, I am finding it more difficult to cope with jetlag as I get older … I would like to know whether it’s a phenomenon of old age or whether it is something I really have to worry about.”

Block’s study also hinted at what flyers have been saying for years: It is more difficult to adjust to time zone changes when flying east. The researchers found that 53 percent of elderly mice died when they were subjected to a simulated weekly flight from Washington to Paris over the eight-week study. The death rate dropped to 32 percent of elderly mice on a simulated Paris-to-Washington route, according to the study, which was published in the journal Current Biology. Seventeen percent of the mice in a control group died in the eight-week study.

Research has identified links between night-shift work and chronic health problems. And doctors and aviation experts have worked hard to help pilots and flight attendants mitigate the effects of jetlag to ensure they can function properly in the air.

Jetlag is caused when people fly across time zones. Many factors, including daylight, sleep cycles, hormones and other natural rhythms, play a role in how humans’ complicated internal clocks handle it.

Researchers say the only way to truly avoid jetlag is for travelers to gradually prepare before leaving on their trips.

Charmane Eastman, a professor and director of the Biological Rhythms Research Lab at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, believes flyers can more easily cope with jetlag by adjusting their sleep schedules before traveling.

If headed east, for example, travelers should go to bed an hour earlier each night and wake up an hour earlier each morning for several days before leaving town.

When travelers wake up, they should get sunlight or use a “light box” to help trigger changes in their biological clocks. Travelers should also consider taking small amounts of melatonin, a hormone, five hours before going to sleep to help them adjust to their future time zone, Eastman said.

The only other way to avoid jetlag on overseas trips: “Take a boat,” she said.

There are also ways to mitigate jetlag once you land. If heading to Europe from the West, most people should wear dark sunglasses after landing until about 11am. Exposure to too much light too early can delay adjustment to new time zones, Eastman said.

After 11am, travelers should try to get as much sunlight as possible to help kick-start the body’s clock, she said.

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