Jet Lag Can Change Your Brain For The Better, A New Study Suggests

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If you feel excited about your upcoming plans for spring break, but anticipate a not-so-stellar encounter with jet lag, take heart. A new study says that jet lag might actually be good for your brain. Published in the journal Cell Reports, the new research shows that a little bit of (temporary) brain stress, accompanied by a disruption in your circadian clock, might help protect the brain from stress. And while you don’t want to mess with your sleep patterns on the regular, brief, temporary disruptions might have some protective benefits, researchers say.

It’s not unusual for patients living with neurodegenerative illnesses to experience major disruptions to their sleep-wake cycles, such as insomnia or needing excessive amounts of sleep. According to a press release on the research, ongoing circadian rhythm upset can lead to increased stress levels, and an overall dip in quality of life for these patients. In order to investigate how the circadian clock contributes to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases, the study’s authors examined the gene that regulates it. For the purposes of the study, researchers induced jet lag in fruit flies, and found that it protected the flies’ brain neurons.

Fredrick Kunkle writing for The Washington Post said that fruit flies’ brains are wired for circadian rhythms in ways similar to humans. To simulate a typical travel-induced jet lag scenario for the flies, researchers put them on a 20-hour, disrupted sleep-wake cycle. According to the findings, jet lag may strengthen the brain’s neural pathways in some key ways, and delay the onset and progression of neurodegenerative illnesses, Kunkle wrote.

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“It seems counterintuitive, but we showed that a little bit of stress is good,” Northwestern's Dr. Ravi Allada, lead study author and circadian rhythms expert said in the press release. “We subtly manipulated the circadian clock, and that stress appears to be neuroprotective.”

“We have long known that a disrupted clock is an early indicator of neurodegenerative disease,” Allada said. “In many cases, sleep disruption precedes any other symptom. But we didn't know whether the circadian disruption is a cause of the disease or a consequence of the disease.” Allada, who expected that jet lag would be detrimental to the brain, according to the press release, said that these findings were surprising. “We had wondered if the clock played a role in the disease,” he said. “It turned out that the clock was important — but in a manner that we did not predict.” Allada intends to further this research in order to investigate Alzheimer’s next, so that researchers can better understand how to slow the progression of different neurodegenerative disorders more fully.

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And while this research sounds promising, you and I both know that jet lag feels pretty terrible, potential benefits notwithstanding. If jet lag is throwing a wrench in your vacation plans, there are a few things you can do that might help. If you’re just taking a quick trip for a couple of days, but you’re jumping time zones, try to avoid disruptions to your regular schedule — even if that means keeping odd hours while you’re away. Additional hacks for getting over jet lag can include syncing up your sleep and meal times with your destination for longer trips, and adjusting your schedule in advance. Staying hydrated can also help soften the effects of jet lag.

And if you can’t completely shake the effects of jet lag when you travel, don’t fret — a little bit of temporary circadian stress might be good for your brain in the long run.