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  HALF PAST YESTERDAY, QUARTER 'TIL TOMORROW.  
   
   
  In 1956, John Foster Dulles blamed jet lag for his failure to win a finance agreement with the Egyptians to build the Aswan Dam. The Soviets, presumably because Moscow is only an hour later than  
  Cairo, won the deal, ushering in several decades of Cold War contention between the two super powers on the African continent. Decades later, Greg Louganis blamed jet lag when he cracked his head open on a diving board during the 1979 Olympic trials. These are two of the more infamous results of jet lag.

Jet lag happens when the body's circadian rhythms are disrupted by changes in light. A person's biological clock is, contrary to the one we live by, twenty-five hours. Changes in light, however, help us to reset our clock by regulating the production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. (Those people who are totally blind, it has been discovered, suffer from sleeping disorders because the sensors at
   
 

the backs of the eyes that control the flow of melatonin never receive the necessary light signals. Some of them are in a perpetual state of jet lag.)

Jet lag, then, stems from a change in the hours of daylight one is exposed to. When a person flying west to east takes off at, say, noon and within a few hours it is the dead of night with stars twinkling off the wingtips, their body reacts by producing melatonin; they become sleepy at a time when they might normally be watching the local news on TV. Heading the opposite direction, following the sun, the day goes on for much longer than normal, maybe for sixteen or seventeen hours; melatonin isn't produced, and so they become tired but not sleepy.

Contributing factors are dry cabin air, cabin pressure (usually at between seven and eight thousand feet), dehydration and lack of exercise. Also, people who have a set schedule seem to suffer more than those who don't. Babies, whose circadian rhythms aren't well established, suffer the least, preferring to make their parents and those around them suffer by crying to be fed when other passengers, whose circadian rhythms are in sync, are hoping for some sleep or a movie.

People have tried various remedies, with little success, to overcome jet lag. The natural rhythms of one's body are not often defeated. What could be more natural than feeling discombobulated (queasy stomach, muddled head, toes that tingle) after flying for maybe twelve hours and crossing through the same number of time zones and arriving a few hours before you departed? (That's what happens when you travel west to east); or, when going the opposite direction and crossing the International Date Line, arriving a few hours after you departed, but a day later. A day of your life is lost. Those who claim not to feel the effects of jet lag are the ones who spent a couple hours before the flight at a concourse sports bar and simply can't distinguish their feelings from a hangover.

One of the most popular remedies for jet lag is, quite naturally, melatonin. If taken a few days before and after a flight, it is supposed to help one maintain their circadian rhythms. Some people swear by it; others have been less enthusiastic. A clinical trial does show that, when compared to a placebo, melatonin, combined with doses of slow-release caffeine do have some effect on reducing jet lag.

But should most of us try to counter a feeling both self-inflicted and normal? Could the cure, a pill, be more problematic than the cause? For some, melatonin brings on strange dreams and caffeine, as we all know, keeps people up. Isn't it possible to get caught up in the cycle of taking melatonin to induce sleep and caffeine to remain awake? Your body, rather than returning to its natural circadian rhythms, is reacting to the chemicals in your blood stream. So unless you are a diplomat or Olympic athlete, why not accept this altered state, even enjoy it for the few days it lasts. Nothing excuses weird behavior better than the jet-age honored excuse of jet lag.

As a jet lag suffer, you can bumble through the day, a ready excuse at hand. "Oh, sorry, I must have dozed off while you were talking. I just got off a flight from (insert city name)."

The person who put you to sleep, rather than realizing they were a complete bore, will be sympathetic, perhaps even offer a few remedies. And only you will know the truth.

This is the beauty of jet lag. You can be the person you always wanted to be, maybe, and get away with it. If you choose to sleep late, eat at strange times of the day, and take cat naps at work you can. There's no need to feel guilty about any of this because it's normal. And if someone doubts you, just shrug and mention Greg Louganis.

 

James Roth has far too much personal experience with jet lag. It explains a lot.