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Israeli researchers close in on a way to beat jet lag

Weizman Institute scientists say a decrease in concentration of oxygen in air could help ‘reset’ biological clock, helping travelers readjust to new daylight hours

Passengers sleep at Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 19, 2008. (Anna Kaplan/ Flash90)
Passengers sleep at Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 19, 2008. (Anna Kaplan/ Flash90)

Breathing in air with a reduced level of oxygen could help passengers combat the symptoms of jet lag, new research by Israeli scientists suggests.

A study conducted by researchers at the Weizman Institute of Science showed that a small shift — whether an increase or decrease — in the oxygen levels in the air acted as a “reset” button for the biological clock of mice.

According to lead researcher Dr. Gad Asher, the results could prove effective in dealing with the exhaustion, dizziness and sickness that accompanies many travelers struggling to readjust to new daylight hours.

If Asher’s research is confirmed in humans, the study could help inform how airlines moderate cabin air pressure. (Air comprises mainly some 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon and 0.04% carbon dioxide.)

Circadian rhythms, biological processes which follow a 24-hour clock and which are closely tied to jet lag, are known to be influenced by food and changes in temperature. The scientists suspected that oxygen absorption in cells, which also changes during meals and temperature variations, could be a vital part of the process.

In the study published last week in the science journal Cell Metabolism, mice that were exposed to a brief dip in oxygen levels adjusted more quickly to a new circadian rhythm than mice that received steady oxygen levels.

The mice exposed to a constant oxygen level took an average of 7.4 days to adapt to a sudden shift in daylight hours, while those who were exposed to a reduced level for 12 hours prior to the simulated “time zone shift” took on average two days less to recover.

“It was extremely exciting to see that even small changes in oxygen levels were sufficient to efficiently reset the circadian clock,” Asher said in a press release.

A visualization of how shifts in oxygen levels can change circadian rhythms through the protein HIF1α, according to research published October 20, 2016 by Dr. Gad Asher at the Weizmann Institute of Science. (Dr. Gad Asher, Cell Metabolism 2016)
A visualization of how shifts in oxygen levels can change circadian rhythms through the protein HIF1α, according to research published October 20, 2016 by the Weizmann Institute of Science. (Dr. Gad Asher, Cell Metabolism 2016)

“We are very looking forward to seeing the outcome of these experiments — it will be interesting both from basic science and also from a practical standpoint,” Asher said.

“I believe passengers might be more enthusiastic to inhale oxygen-enriched air to alleviate jet lag in contrast to low oxygen,” he noted.

Asher’s research team included Weizmann Institute colleagues Yaarit Adamovich, Benjamin Ladeuix and Marina Golik as well as Dr. Maarten Koeners from the Netherlands’ Utrecht University.

The benefits of understanding how oxygen influences the circadian clock goes beyond jet lag. Other common health disorders, including cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other metabolic disorders, can result in tissues with low oxygen levels.

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