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After a 20-hour flight that takes you across 10 time zones, the last thing you want to talk about is science. But science may be the very thing that saves you from impending jet lag.
Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, recently discovered REV-ERBα, a protein that they describe as a “key player” in helping to control circadian rhythms, a fancy term for the physical, emotional and behavioral processes that affect our bodies in a 24-hour period — disruptions to which, according to the Salk Institute, “are why jet lag or a bad night’s sleep can alter your appetite and sleep patterns for days — and even contribute to conditions like heart disease, sleep disorders and cancers.”
While scientists have long known that these rhythms can be easily interrupted by external changes like temperature and sunlight, they’re now discovering that the REV-ERBα protein can help control the strength of the circadian cycle, making it less susceptible to fluctuations — like those caused by snoozing your way across the Atlantic at 40,000 feet when you should be having dinner.
“Whether it is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on your stereo or the symphony of genes in our bodies, both require volume to be heard,” said Ronald Evans, director of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and the senior author of the study. “Our recent work describes how REV-ERBα acts as a molecular conductor to allow the volume or activity of thousands of genes to be dialed up or down.”
While other studies have attempted to manipulate the timing of the circadian cycle, Evans and his team are the first to play with the cycle’s amplitude. “We think that if you have a ‘weak’ circadian cycle, you can’t get enough signal to affect physiology,” said research associate Xuan Zhao. “Conversely, having an extra ‘strong’ circadian cycle would probably not be good. Evolution has given us a Goldilocks, or ‘just right,’ circadian cycle that is optimal for our health.”
The hope is that one day in the not too distant future, a simple pill could easily cure what days of sleep and sluggishness never seem to be able to accomplish.
“Pharmacologically, we can manipulate this system,” says Michael Downes, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The more we understand about how to do this, the better we can treat metabolic diseases and cancers related to the circadian cycle.” And the less guesswork you’ll need to put into determining your optimal departure time.
Do you have any tips for beating jet lag? Share them below.
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