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What you eat, and when, may be the best way to stave off the effects of jet lag

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, July 14, 2014, 9:39 AM - Flying off to a vacation destination is great fun, but much less so when crossing time zones throws our body's rhythms out of whack and we end up suffering from jet lag. A new study is suggesting that the key to avoiding this problem may lie in our insulin levels.

There are plenty of 'remedies' out there for jet lag, from the simple to the rather bizarre, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The problem with jet lag stems from the disruption of our circadian clock. This collection of 24-hour rhythms that our bodies run on dictates when we need to eat, sleep and so on, but it is also affected by those same biological aspects - how much sleep we get, what we eat and when we eat, etc. If you suddenly change time-zones, so that you have to operate on a daily schedule that's much different than what you're used to, it takes time for your body to adjust to that new schedule. Until it does, you can suffer from a whole host of problems - fatigue, irritability, trouble concentrating, difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, and even problems with digestion. 

While the timing of our circadian clock can shift back and forth with time, simply based on when we go to sleep, how much light there is, etc, a research team in Japan, led by led by Dr. Makoto Akashi of Yamaguchi University, was interested in how food, and consequently insulin, played a part in all of this.

Working with laboratory mice, the team kept them on a fairly normal night-time schedule (for mice, that is), with food only available at night, and they kept track of their hormone levels - especially one tied to our waking and sleeping schedule, called period circadian protein homolog 2, or PER2. Then they flipped that schedule, so that the mice were up and food was available only during the day. Keeping the lights off so that they were only seeing the effects of the change in when food was available (since light affects these rhythms as well), they watched as the mice all fully adjusted to the new schedule within a matter of days. 

Setting up the same experiment with another set of mice, which were injected with an insulin-blocking chemical called S961, they performed the same schedule flip. The injected mice took twice as long to adjust to the new schedule as the un-injected mice had.

Based on this, it seems that controlling when we eat, thus focusing on snacking throughout our day to keep insulin levels steady, and focusing on foods that boost insulin levels (like carbohydrates), may allow us to adjust our circadian clocks faster and easier.

"Given that insulin secretion is strongly induced by carbohydrates," Dr. Akashi told Huffington Post, "you may be helped by carb-rich foods at dinner when you go eastward from your country. When you go westward, they may be at breakfast. However, further studies need to be done."

The research study was published this week in the journal Cell Reports.

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