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TRAVELING in style : Circadian Clockwork : An expert's list of shortcuts for easing the malady of jet lag.

March 18, 1990|CHARLES F. EHRET | Ehret, senior scientist emeritus at Argonne National Laboratory and president of General Chronobionics Inc., Hinsdale, Ill., is a pioneer in chronobiology, the study of the exact mechanisms involved in control of the sense of time in living organisms.

You probably know the feeling. Dizziness. Confusion. Inability to sleep. Aching muscles. Moodiness. Digestive discomfort. No, it's probably not the flu. More likely, it has something to do with the trip that you have just completed. Whether two, four or 15 hours away, every time-zone changed brings with it the potential for increased discomfort. Scientists call it "transmeridianal malaise" but it's plain jet lag to everyone else.

Jet lag was born with advances in travel technology. In the early 1960s, we world travelers were still using those grand ocean liners to do the bulk of our transoceanic travel. It was, after all, the civilized way. Part of the pleasure was that it took so many days to get from one point to another. Indeed, you had already arrived in a very special place, once you boarded such a ship. These were floating palaces--places to relax for 10 days, to write books, to socialize with new-found friends and to do so with no sign of transmeridianal fatigue. But gradually through so-called "progress," these slow-paced, sea-going palaces lost many of their passengers to aircraft that became faster and faster as time marched on.

As recently as the early 1960s, the four-engine, propeller-driven plane took about 17 hours to travel from New York to Paris. Then came the jets, which require seven hours for the same trip. Now we can do the New York-Paris flight on the Concorde in 3 hours, 45 minutes.

Lucky for today's traveler, the speed of research into the science of circadian, or body rhythms, and the nature of the body's clock almost kept pace with the speed of international travel. In 1960, science had recognized only a single factor capable of resetting the body's clock. It was light. But by the end of the 1970s, the link between jet lag and confused biological clocks had been accepted, and a variety of other clock resetters were identified.

In working on "clock resetting" experiments at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, my colleagues and I found that the best way to combat jet lag was to use several of these clock resetters together. Thus, the jet lag diet was born and I published "Overcoming Jet Lag" with Lynne Walter Scanlon (Berkeley Books). At Argonne, a research center specializing in the study of peaceful uses for nuclear energy, including biological forms of energy, we prepared and distributed nearly half a million copies of wallet-size cards outlining "The Argonne Anti Jet Lag Diet."

Throughout the 1980s, the public appetite for more information on overcoming jet lag rose with our globe-trotting ways. As we enter the '90s, what advice can we offer the traveler who wants to avoid or at least minimize the symptoms of jet lag? For starters, jet lag usually lasts only about a day per time zone. Yet it's easier to adjust to new time zones going west than east because, very simply, it's easier to slow down the biological clock than to speed it up. Yet this can be of small comfort to someone who hasn't captured a full night's sleep for three days running. It makes more sense to prepare in advance and avoid the symptoms to the best of our abilities.

To that noble end, here are 12 tips:

1. Health. Leave home well rested, physically strong and mentally alert, with your body clock strongly set in home time and your body in the best working order. Avoid extra chores, late-night work, last-minute shopping sprees and endless bon voyage parties. A 15-minute cushion of extra sleep before and after your usual eight hours per night can add to your feeling of well being if indulged in for three or four nights before a trip.

2. Itinerary. Plan your itinerary carefully; avoid too much zigzagging across time zones. If you can avoid it, don't arrive at your destination later than midnight, especially during the "circadian pits" (from 2 to 4 a.m.). Try to choose flight schedules that get you there after breakfast and before 8:30 at night so that you have time to settle in and enjoy your night's accommodations before sleep-onset time.

3. Dress. Travel in comfort. Wear soft, loose-fitting garments and shoes and take along a suitably-equipped travel kit. The kit should contain a pair of eye shades and ear plugs to shut out light and noise and a soft pair of slippers to slip on during the flight. The kit should also include a small food reserve containing high-protein granola bars, cheese and crackers or a small carton of yogurt. High protein foods are needed because they tend to stimulate the get-up-and-go part of our metabolism.

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