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Jet Lag.

John Robert Brown

Now I can't find the key. I'm not talking about 'key' in the musical sense, though right now I'd have trouble with that too. I mean the key to my hotel room. One of those little rectangular flexible cards, with a magnetic stripe and lots of printed information you don't read or need. These days they often print the room number on them. If someone finds your key, they can visit your room. Most helpful. The card is compact enough to slip into that place where you keep your credit cards. But it isn't there.

I make another search, so that my room now looks like a landfill site. Still no card; I'm stuck. Thank goodness it's daylight, as the card is designed to live in the master switch slot, by the door, to keep the power on. At least I can see. But I can't leave, because I won't be able to get back in.

I'm contemplating this predicament when the phone rings. My wife, in England, is about to go to bed. Here in Kyoto I've just got up. It's not surprising everything feels topsy-turvy, after eating breakfast at what my body believes to be suppertime.

"I think I'm going senile," I moan.

"Why?"

"I lost my key. Could be Alzheimer's, or dementia, or amnesia..."

"Try hypochondria."

"You don't understand. I've just written a postcard, then discovered that I wrote one to the same person fifteen minutes ago."

"You were doing that sort of thing twenty years ago,"

"Thanks for the reminder."

"It's nothing to worry about," she says. "The forgetfulness, I mean."

"Really?"

"Yes," she insists. "It's the jet lag affecting your hormones. The stress hormone cortisol occurs in higher levels when a person's sleep patterns are disturbed. High cortisol levels are associated with temporary loss of short-term memory. That's all. You'll adjust."

"Oh." She knows about these things.

"I showed you a copy of a medical research paper on cortisol and jet lag a couple of weeks ago."

"I forgot."

"Ha. Very funny."

I'm reminded of that old Jasper Carrot routine about the goldfish that can only remember something for seven seconds.

"Hey, look, there's a castle," says the first goldfish.

"Great," says his friend. "What's a castle?"

"No idea. Why do you ask?"

Later I find some jet lag stuff on the internet. A Bristol University team scanned the brains of experienced flight cabin staff. They discovered that those who made regular journeys across several time zones demonstrated evidence of impaired thinking ability. Their brains actually reduced. So, the price of my air miles to Japan is a bonsai brain.

I muse with my midget mind. According to the British Airways site: "Lack of sleep and disruption to the circadian clock (the brain's timekeeper) can lead to fatigue, digestive upset and headaches. It can downgrade our decision-making by up to 50 percent, communication skills by 30 percent, memory by 20 percent, and attention by 75 percent."

Thus, if you have flown around the world and are about to embark on serious work, don't expect to be anywhere near your sparkling best. As it's claimed that some of the worst industrial accidents are the result of shift workers' impaired ability due to circadian clock disruption, you'll probably be at your worst. The Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown is reputed to have been caused this way. If you have to travel across time zones, either remain on home time (not easy on anything but a very short trip), or travel several days early to give your brain time to adjust.

BUPA suggests some ways of minimising the effects of jet lag:

Drink lots of water;

Limit alcohol intake;

If travelling for just a few days, try to keep your body clock as close as possible to 'home time'.

Try to keep meal times as close to home time as possible when on a short trip.

British Airways point out that our body has evolved to be more sleepy between 3-5 am and 3-5pm, and more alert between 8-10 am and 8-10 pm. They suggest that when travelling, schedule meetings to be within 'alert' times, and naps and socialising into 'sleepy' times.

That's at home time, of course. The whole pattern is catastrophically reversed when you're in a time zone eight or twelve hours away. It is also suggested that you can improve alertness by supplementing reduced sleep with a short nap of 45 minutes, or a long nap of two hours. Any sleep is better than no sleep, they say.

Less helpful is the recommendation to aid sleep by tuning into static on a radio or stereo. No thanks. The site also discusses medication for sleep and alertness. Apparently, over-the-counter sleep medications usually contain antihistamine as the active ingredient, to create drowsiness and sleepiness. It's reassuring to read that these medications have little effect on the structure of sleep, and generally few side effects. Alertness products usually contain high doses of caffeine as the active ingredient. Be careful if you take these with other stimulants, such as caffeine in the form of coffee or tea.

We overlook the importance of short term memory. For instance, I'm a musician, and when sight reading, one can't read music unless one's memory is functioning well. Where is the repeat sign? Which accidentals have we just seen? How loud am I supposed to be? Where's the key signature?

Speaking of keys, that reminds me. I did find the lost key. I switched on the reading lamp, and realised that the master switch was on. The key was in the slot by the door all along. Oh dear.

I still feel a little jet lagged. It's said that you require a day's recovery for each hour of time change. Here in Japan I'm eight hours ahead of GMT. When I return to England, it'll be eight days before I return to normal.

Until then I keep doing jet-laggy things, such as beginning to write a sentence, and then.

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