Of Mice and Men

Researchers at the University of Virginia have studied the effects of jet lag on mice and the news is not good for us flatworld types. We may be looking at prematurely flat-lining, so be sure to write your wills.

The experiment was set up as follows:

…the researchers tested three groups of mice, with about 30 old mice and 9 young mice in each group. One group had its light and dark cycle shifted forward by six hours – the equivalent of waking people up six hours early – every week for eight weeks. A second group had its schedule shifted back by six hours, and the third group’s schedule was unaltered.

The results were very interesting:

They found that 83 percent of old mice survived under the normal schedule, 68 percent lived after eight weeks of shifting steadily backward, but fewer than half – 47 percent – survived when the lights regularly came on six hours earlier. When they speeded the schedule up, changing the light schedule every four days, even more mice died.

I do have some issues with how the experiment was set up. If it was supposed to simulate international travel it should have shifted backwards and then forwards instead of shifting it backwards and then backwards again.

But I can’t take exception to using mice for the experiment. My international travel also involves steel cages, small spaces and people in starched coats serving me tasteless food. And also like the mice, what I say is completely ignored by the people in starched coats. So I would say that using mice as a proxy for the international traveler is not too much of a stretch – which of course, you never get to do anyway.

The study was conducted with a six hour shift in daylight. That is equivalent to a gentle New York – Frankfurt trip. Not very interesting to folks like me who do the SFO-BOM trip four times a year or more, which is a 12.5/13.5 hour time shift. But I suspect they tried that and it killed all the mice instantly preventing the experiment to be completed. Or perhaps the mice simply refused to cooperate and drew the curtains tight on their cages. Either way, dead or uncooperative, it didn’t help the cause of the study.

On my trips to India, that is basically how I feel in the afternoon on the first couple of days – dead and uncooperative. On one of these afternoons I had this incident:

It was the end of the quarter and I had gone to Bangalore to participate in Infosys’ quarterly earnings release and other sundry internal meetings. The company had had another blowout quarter (how boring). There had been a few events already in the morning – CNBC, Earnings Call, Press Conference – and I had been my ebullient self at all of them. The afternoon earnings call was for the US investors. It also happened to be at the nadir of my circadian rhythm.

The Q&A was thick and fast about ‘basis points on margin’ and ‘forex cover’ and such like. While interesting to some, I was past caring about it after hearing it a couple of times in the morning. I zoned out. Not asleep, mind you. Just in that twilight zone where caffeine is somehow holding you back from falling over the cliff of consciousness. When suddenly our esteemed CEO turned in my direction and said ‘Basab will take that question.’

Someone had once told me that the sound of ones voice lingers in the air a few minutes after you’ve finished a sentence. I desperately scrabbled in the rocks of these lingering voices but came up with nothing. Even a little hint of something, a couple of words and I would have fibbed my way through. I needed just enough to say something, anything. Even if the response to that had been ‘Actually, that was not my question. My question was…’, I was willing to take that. But no such luck. I mumbled something about the audio being a little muffled and punted the question back to my CEO.

Quite embarrassing as you might imagine. All these calls are recorded and transcribed. I haven’t gone back and looked but I’m pretty sure there is some document on the internet that has the above exchange captured for posterity. After this incident, I started carrying melatonin with me for when I had an important afternoon in the first couple of days in India.

Other rules of mine to manage jetlag that I rarely follow are:

– Don’t partake of alcohol on the first few nights in town. Alcohol dehydrates and that will wake you up for water. Beer is interesting in that if consumed in sufficient quantities, it can wake you up twice. Once to pee and later to drink water.
– Don’t get stressed about the CFO canning your pet project or why your bonus should be twice what your boss gave you. Your mind should be in neutral when you wake up at 2 AM, so that you can count sheep and go back to sleep.
– Don’t watch TV before going to bed. This one is particularly pertinent for shorter trips to say New York. You want to shut down and lull yourself to sleep. I generally carry a book for this. Something slow and boring like Indian fiction (no thrillers please) will do.
– Don’t go to fancy restaurants on the first couple of nights. Lots of spicy food doesn’t sit well with most people if you are trying to get a good night’s sleep.

The other reason to avoid good restaurants early in your trip is to avoid the risk of falling asleep at the table with your face in the dal. The dal on your face could be passed off as a face mask (these NRIs!). But your local hosts might take exception to you nodding off in the midst of their scintillating conversation. This happened to me once at Karavalli an excellent Konkani restaurant in Bangalore. I had gone there with a colleague who shall remain nameless. In my defence he did tend to drone on a bit. After the all important task of ordering (shrimp balchao, chicken ishtew and appam, if you must know) I put my head down on the table and promptly fell asleep. I don’t believe I snored or anything and managed to come away without any egg (or dal) on my face. My colleague, a fellow world traveler, understood and remains a good friend.

Coming back to the main subject of the experiment conducted by the biologists at University of Virginia, I totally believe their conclusion that international travel reduces your life span. The other day I was trying to set up a reminder for my 50th birthday and it wouldn’t allow me to. This also explains why the average age in the Indian IT Services industry is 25 years. The older people keep dying off from too much international travel, effectively lowering the average age. I’m surprised why nobody’s noticed it yet.

But all is not lost. If you are a flatworld warrior, you may still have hope. For there is another study from Harvard Medical School that concludes that red wine may help you live longer. The study, you guessed it, was conducted with mice. Although I would have preferred that the same mice were used (before they died that is) in both experiments. If they had died, at least they would have died happy mice.

Would love to hear your experiences with travel to and from India!

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5 Responses to Of Mice and Men

  1. Tanmoy says:

    You reminded me of the saying…the problem with the rat race is that they keep adding younger and fitter rats to the race !

    Good tips on keeping awake after the lag, but you didnt add the most important one…reach well in time before your scheduled meetings ! Of course, this is a pretty impractical one..even when possible. In order to be at home with family for one more day, I used to catch the Sunday morning flights, so as to reach my destination at 6.30 on Monday morning…with just enough time to shower, change and meet the client at 9 am !

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  2. Sriram says:

    Douglas Adams in HitchHiker’s Guide to Galaxy has a very interesting theory regarding lab mice and how the earth came about. Maybe the mice meant more…Would strongly recommend reading the book. Offers answers for life, universe and everything 😉

    –42

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  3. Rustus says:

    Basab,

    Globetrotting has another evil twin – the midnight bulb. Flatworld companies tend to have people flying around a lot and, when they’re not flying, they have conference calls at all time of the night.

    http://rustus.blogspot.com/2006/12/midnight-bulb.html

    While 6am pst works for all conference calls that I organize, I’m usually party to a number of 5am pst calls that go hand in glove with the 11pm pst call (same day, none less).

    So, how would I like to reduce your lifespan? Given a choice between globetrotting and midnight bulb-ing, I’d choose the midnight bulb. At least I go out in my pajamas this way!

    Cheers

    Rustus

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  4. An average adult, 70 kg body weight (hell that is no longer the average anywhere, esp not on the Pac-Coast) will have to drink 39 bottles of red wine a day to get the amount of resveratrol that mice were given in the study you cite. That is more likely to accelerate the flatlining of that individual than jetlag ever can…

    Perhaps it is better to compare the human case with that of primates where restricted caloric intake was found to decelerate the aging process.

    Of course you live in the land of ‘give me a pill to solve this’ and I hear that pills/ supplements called resveratrol are flying off the shelf. And of course pills to shift your body cycle have been on the market for a long while.

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  5. Saumitri says:

    Ha ha… this was nice reading. This time Basab has managed to “wittify” his article so much that I couldn’t help smiling at it.

    But seriously, sometimes I do see myself as a third person observing my own other self, jet-lagged, back to work the same day, taking client calls again at night(if in India) and offshore team calls(if in the US) – and that makes me wonder how inhuman our lifestyles are becoming.

    On the other hand, I seem to enjoy this. Keeps me running – dunno where though…;-)

    Saumitri

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