April 24th, 2009
05:37 PM ET

How jet lag affects our brains

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

It’s funny sometimes how our work content crosses over into our real lives. A case of art imitating life? For the last several weeks, I have been jet lagged, big time. It started when I was in India a few weeks ago. The trip there wasn’t bad and I managed to get on a schedule pretty quickly once I hit the ground. Once I got back, though, I had a very hard time shaking it. About a week later, I was still lying awake at 3 a.m. feeling as if I had been run over by a Mack truck. Right when I getting back on track, I flew to the West Coast and started the whole process all over again. And, I just got in from LA late last night. No question, I do travel a lot, but I was always curious: What is really happening in my brain when I am jet lagged?

The area of the brain that is most crucial to all of this is the hypothalamus. It is a key area of the brain, and most specifically the suprachiasmatic nucleus (that’s a name to remember…) contains tens of thousands of neurons whose main function is to regulate our circadian rhythms, our body clocks. (read jet lag study) In neurosurgical terms, this area is completely “out of whack” when we travel. But, it is more than that.

There are two types of neurons that individually represent our deep sleep and REM sleep. The deep sleep neurons do synch up within a day, even after a significant overseas trip but it is those neurons overseeing REM sleep that take much longer. Without REM sleep, which is the type of sleep that allows you to dream, you are going to feel more fatigued, have lapses in memory and general decreased performance.

Now, as you might imagine, researchers who figured this out in rats have already told us they are looking into the possibility of a “jet lag” drug to target the suprachiasmatic neurons in the hypothalamus regulating REM sleep patterns (I feel smart just writing that). Yes, I am convinced that one day there will be a pill for everything, but I am not a big fan of pills, so here are some techniques I have learned over the years. (watch Sanjay's personal tips)

I immediately change my clock to the new time zone when getting on the plane. If possible, I will try to go to bed an hour earlier each night for a couple of nights prior to the trip. As you might imagine, starting off sleep deprived is not a good idea. I take eye blinders and a heavy sweater on all flights, so I can sleep even during daylight. As I mentioned, sleeping pills aren’t really my thing, though I have a few frequent traveler friends who swear by melatonin. In case you can’t remember how to take this supplement, think of it as the “darkness hormone.” It is made when it is dark outside and suppressed by light. You take it about an hour before bedtime – of your new location.

Please excuse all typos – I was jet lagged when I wrote this. And, I was wondering if you had any more tips to ward off jet lag to help me and other travelers?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.