Getting a Jump on Jet Lag

Reset your time clock with Acupuncture

by Lucy Postolov, L.Ac.

As published in June, 1998 issue of Whole Life Times

It’s the vacation of a lifetime. You’ve saved for it, planned it for months, and now, at last, you’ve arrived at the destination of your dreams. Everything around you is as beautiful as expected. It’s stimulating, awe-inspiring…and you can hardly wait to crawl into bed.

Anyone who has traveled long distances knows the havoc jet lag can wreak on those first few days of vacation. Your mind and senses may be excited by your new surroundings, but your body is in sluggish rebellion. You may be irritable, depressed, head achy or unable to concentrate. Worse yet, a weakened immune system could make you vulnerable to a cold or flu.

Fortunately, there are solutions to this potential vacation-buster: Acupuncture and melatonin supplements. Both work by altering our biological reactions to day and night.

Circadian rhythms

According to Western science, our sleep-and-wake cycles are deeply rooted in our brains. Every living creature, from single-cell amoeba to human being, possesses a built-in clock that responds to the daily cycle of light and darkness. The key to this adaptation is the hormone melatonin, the body’s natural tranquilizer.

Every 24 hours, the earth rotates on its axis, and our blood pressure, blood sugar and hormone secretion change right along with it. These natural fluctuations, called circadian rhythms, create changes in our mood and energy levels throughout the day.

Human wake-and-sleep cycles, one of the key circadian rhythms, originate in the pineal gland, a pea-sized organ located in the center of the brain. The pineal gland receives information about light and dark relayed from the eyes through pathways in the brain. Darkness triggers the pineal gland to secrete the hormone melatonin, creating a feeling of sleepiness. Peak levels of melatonin production occur between 2 and 4 a.m. Light hits the pineal gland during daytime, inhibiting melatonin production.

Scientists identified melatonin about 30 years ago but clinical trials are relatively recent. Numerous studies conducted over the past several years have correlated sleeplessness to low levels of melatonin. Our nighttime secretion of melatonin appears to decrease as we age, a probable cause of sleep disturbances that affect many elderly people. Newborns, whose brains have not yet developed circadian rhythms, receive melatonin in their mother’s milk, which contains higher levels of the hormone during the nighttime hours.

The Chinese biological clock

Long before study of the brain and the discovery of melatonin, the ancient Chinese developed their own theory of our biological adaptation to the cycle of night and day.

The Chinese biological clock divides the 24-hour cycle into two-hour periods, each associated with a particular organ of the body. During that two hours, the organ is believed to be at its peak, triggering a surge of energy along the pathways called meridians. For example, liver function crests between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.; the lungs, between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Disorders of a particular organ are best treated by stimulating it during its peak period, or by sedating it at its lowest point, 12 hours later (a convenient option for medical practitioners whose own biological clocks rebel against treating patients at 3 a.m.).

Resetting the clock

To minimize the effects of jet lag, you’ll need to reset your biological clock to the local time of your desired destination. The more time zones you cross-especially when traveling west to east-the more likely you will experience jet lag.

Acupuncture and melatonin have both proven effective in adapting the body clock to a different time zone, although melatonin may not be appropriate for everyone.

Acupuncture treats jet lag by changing the flow of energy along pathways in the body called meridians. By stimulating a specific combination of points, the acupuncturist can adapt the rhythms of the internal clock to the local time zone. The treatment lasts about 30 minutes.

Melatonin

The most popular treatment for jet lag today is melatonin, a synthetic form of the sleep-inducing hormone secreted by the pineal gland. Though readily available, melatonin is extremely powerful and should not be taken without the guidance of a health professional.

Clinical trials have shown that melatonin works best when taken on the night of arrival in the new time zone, rather than a few days prior to departure. No single dosage is right for everyone or every situation.

A word of caution

Recent reports in the media have hailed melatonin as a natural remedy to enhance longevity and sexual function, cure insomnia and treat a host of other disorders, ranging from heart attacks to cancer. While it appears to be safe for most people and effective for jet lag, other claims remain unproven, and the effects of long-term melatonin usage are unknown.

One milligram of melatonin, the smallest dose on the market, raises the concentration of melatonin in the blood by 30 times. Such a massive increase in melatonin levels can affect fertility, weaken the immune system and have serious side effects for some people, including pregnant women or nursing mothers. Others who should be especially cautious include children, diabetics and anyone experiencing depression or taking antidepressants. Also, anyone with an auto-immune disorder or taking an immune-suppressant medication should consult a physician before taking melatonin.

Whether you choose the Eastern or Western approach to jet lag-or a combination of both-resetting your internal clock can help make every day of your vacation count.-L.P.