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Holiday Jet Leg: Affecting the Brain Long After the Season Is Over

Whether you are traveling across the country, or picking up a holiday shift, here are some simple things to help fight jet lag (and keep your brain healthy).
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The holiday season brings lots of travel -- visiting family and friends, taking vacations. If you have ever traveled and experienced jet lag, you know that you can feel that you are just not quite fully functioning (particularly when traveling east) when you arrive at your destination. A new study shows that this particular effect of jet lag may linger longer than we realize.

Researchers at The University of California at Berkley conducted an interesting experiment. They used an animal model in which they compared the performance and memory tasks of jet lagged hamsters against a control group. The researchers learned that jet lag affects the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning:

  • It limits the growth of brain cells and reduces brain activity.

  • It leads to memory and learning problems.
  • Even a month after recovering, subjects were still suffering from its effects.
  • Lance Kriegsfeld, UC Berkley associate professor of psychology and the author of the study, commented, "What this says is that, whether you are a flight attendant, medical resident, or rotating shift worker, repeated disruption of circadian rhythms is likely going to have a long-term impact on your cognitive behavior and function."

    I could not agree with him more.

    Anyone who travels or works a rotating shift can experience jet lag and not even realize it. Since this was an animal experiment, we can't ask the participants if they noticed feeling any different, or if they had any difficulty learning something new. Even so, this study sheds light on some astounding implications of jet lag for various professionals:

    • Pilots learning new flight routes.

  • Medical residents practicing new surgical techniques or recognizing unfamiliar states of diseases.
  • Shift workers dealing with different job responsibilities, rotations, or assembly methods.
  • Jet lag could be the cause of many simple errors.

    I have written about jet lag before; "jet lag" is usually the result of crossing several time zones in a short period of time, without allowing for your body to time to adjust for the changes in time. Your body will typically adjust at the rate of one to two time zones per day, so if you cross six time zones, your body will naturally make the adjustment to the time change in about three to five days. Though shift workers may not physically cross over time zones, their days and nights fluctuate according to their work schedule, which throws off their biological clock.

    Whether you are traveling across the country, or picking up a holiday shift, here are some simple things to help fight jet lag (and keep your brain healthy):

    1. Time your flights. If you are only flying over two to three zones, avoid the "red eye" flights as much as possible. Remember, jet lag is worse if you traveling east.

  • Get outside and get some sunlight! Light helps reset your circadian rhythm and reduces the effects of jet lag.
  • Adjust with exercise. Exercise also helps reset your biological clock. I would not suggest running a marathon, but while you are outside getting sunlight, consider taking a brisk walk.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Both will negatively affect your sleep cycle, which will already be slightly off.
  • Resist napping on the plane. You may need to fall asleep earlier than your body is used to at your new destination. Being a little more tired could be helpful.
  • Melatonin might not be the best answer; the studies on its effectiveness are mixed. As I have "blogged" before melatonin often comes in an overdose amount -- we're talking anything over one milligram. It's important to check with your doctor before taking this hormone.
  • Consider a jet lag calculator app. These can help guide you through overcoming and preventing jet lag. Virgin Atlantic offers one that I enjoy from Mental Workout.
  • Have a happy holiday season, and sleep well.

    Sweet dreams,

    Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
    The Sleep Doctor™
    Twitter: @thesleepdoctor
    Facebook: TheSleepDoctor

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