Health & Welfare: Jet Lag, or How to Reset Your Internal Clocks


Circadian (24-hour) biological rhythms play an important part in human functioning and health, Scientists have only a very sketchy understanding of mechanisms controlling changes in biological rhythms as a result of traveling across time zones. But even at our present relatively crude levels of understanding, we know some causes of the most important phenomena and how to minimize some deleterious changes that can occur in long-distance travelers.

Acclimation to a new time zone doesn't happen instantly. In fact, most people require about one day at their destination for each one-hour time-zone change. Many large corporations forbid their executives to engage in the most critical of negotiations until this adaptation period is past. But what if you are flying between Los Angeles and New York and don't have three days to devote to the natural acclimation process?

Jet lag is a familiar phenomenon to many, if not most, frequent fliers. Waking up groggy or having a hard time getting to sleep, waking up frequently and finding it difficult to get back to sleep, and experiencing fatigue, depression, and inefficiency during the day are common. We have developed a way to prevent these symptoms in ourselves that is based upon a biochemical understanding of some of the day/night rhythms in the brain.

We know that sleep is induced by the release in the brain of the neurotransmitter serotonin (neurotransmitters are chemicals used by nerve cells to communicate with each other). The serotonin release cycle appears to be disrupted by a rapid change of time zones. Therefore, when we decide that we want to sleep (a decision that may be better made by logic than gut feelings under conditions of jet lag!), we take about two grams of the amino acid nutrient tryptophan, which in most people is rapidly converted to serotonin in the brain.

Since tryptophan has to compete with other aromatic amino acids to be transported into the brain through the finicky blood-brain barrier, best results occur when the tryptophan is taken alone and on an empty stomach immediately before going to bed. Exact dosage has to be individualized. It is helpful to take, at the same time, a 100 mg. supplement of Vitamin B-6, since B-6 is required for the conversion of the tryptophan to serotonin.

The time-shifted traveler often suffers from interrupted or restless sleep. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine plays a major part in controlling responsiveness to external stimuli as well as regulating nerve signals sent to muscles. In normal sleep, adequate acetylcholine is released to turn down response to the environment and to inhibit restless movements. These symptoms can be modified or eliminated in the insomniac traveler by taking the nutrient choline (which is converted by the brain into acetylcholine) before bed. A dose of three grams is reasonable. Since Vitamin B-5 is required for the conversion of choline to acetylcholine, a supplement of 200 mg. of B-5 (pantothenic acid or calcium pantothenate) with the choline can produce superior results.

Some frequent travelers take Valium or Librium as sedatives to make it easier to sleep. Scientists have discovered that the brain receptors that respond to Valium and Librium also respond to the nutrients niacinamide and inositol. A gram of niacinamide and 3-10 grams of inositol before bed can be very helpful in producing drowsiness and sleep.

To increase alertness, motivation, and energy the next day, we often take a quantity of the amino acid nutrient phenylalanine early that day (or just before bed the night before). Phenylalanine, after transport into the brain, is converted into the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (the brain's version of adrenalin). This conversion requires Vitamins C and B-6. Norepinephrine is important for memory and learning as well as for primitive drives and emotions, long-term planning, and mood.

Some popular stimulants, such as amphetamines and cocaine, cause the brain to release norepinephrine from its stores but, unfortunately, do not tell the brain to make more, eventually depleting the supply. Depletion of norepinephrine by excessive use of stimulants can result in severe depression. In one clinical study of people with various sorts of depression—including depression induced by amphetamine abuse, endogenous and schizophrenic depressions, etc.—most were entirely relieved of their depressions by taking 100-500 mg. of phenylalanine a day for two weeks.

Jet lag attenuation with phenylalanine is most important when flying from west to east. Doses have to be individualized. The dose required on the first night is generally larger than that required for chronic antidepressant use and is typically 250 mg. to 2 grams taken at lights out—not an hour earlier. (If you have high blood pressure, you should increase phenylalanine doses cautiously, while checking your blood pressure—some large doses can cause blood pressure elevation in a few susceptible individuals.)

The sensitivity of your nerves to norepinephrine is increased by several commonly used drugs, including caffeine, theophylline (in tea), theobromine (in cocoa), and, most selective of all, the prescription drug Hydergine R (Sandoz). These may be beneficially taken in the morning but probably should be avoided in the evening for travelers going from west to east.

Relieving the unpleasant symptoms of jet lag is more than just a matter of convenience, though, because we know that disrupted day/night neurotransmitter release patterns are hazardous to your health. When serotonin and norepinephrine release are disrupted, it affects the release of other important chemicals. Growth hormone is one of the most important. Without adequate growth hormone, the immune system does not function well. Since your immune system is your defense against viruses, bacteria, cancer, and atherosclerotic plaques, this is a serious matter. People who frequently travel long distances have been found to have higher rates of many illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, both of which largely result from inadequate immune-system surveillance.

There are a great many ways to stimulate the performance of the immune system with nutrients you can buy in any health food store—but that will have to be the subject of another column. In the meantime, both serotonin and norepinephrine are important growth hormone releasers during sleep. Taking the nutrient supplements mentioned above to prevent jet lag should help prevent both serious disease and the near-ubiquitous minor illnesses that dog the jet-lagged traveler. Before embarking on your next trans-time-zone trip, stop by a vitamin shop and purchase the nutrients mentioned above,and see your physician for a Hydergine R prescription.

We follow our own advice; we now wake up alert the first morning in New York City after a good night's sleep, having left Los Angeles the day before. Due to our personal late-to-bed, late-to-rise sleeping habits, this involves a time shift of about six hours. Using the techniques described here, we both feel and perform better on the first morning than we did previously after three days of adaptation.

Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson are consulting scientists, authors, and TV personalities. Copyright © 1981 by Sandy Shaw and Durk Pearson. References to this column are available. Send a stamped envelope to this publication and indicate the month of the column.