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Time Travel Is Tough on Players

By Elissa Leibowitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 11, 1998; Page C4

Jet lag does not discriminate between a fit NHL player and a seldom-traveling Japanese vacationer. The effects of jisa boke, as it's known to the Olympic hosts, can strike both the same.

If the problems — fatigue, sleep trouble, shortness of breath, inability to concentrate — make starting a vacation difficult, imagine what they do to Olympic athletes who have to perform at their peak without enough time to recover.

"What jet lag is is the effect of traveling through different time zones. What that does is either advances or delays the 24-hour cycle in which sleep occurs," said Richard Waldhorn, medical director of Georgetown University's Sleep Disorder Center.

The brain's biological clock revolves around daylight and darkness to regulate sleep-wake cycles, called circadian rhythms. Daylight generally dictates when a human wakes up, eats and sleeps — patterns that are disrupted after crossing time zones and experiencing nighttime sooner or later than normal. Hormones such as melatonin, which makes you feel awake or sleepy, are thrown off, as well.

"If that normal 'up and down' does not correlate with the clock hour, it can affect the way we feel," Waldhorn said.

Some experts say travelers need a half-day to one full day's recovery for each time zone crossed, and others suggest that 48 hours is needed.

But even the generous estimates are unrealistic for such Olympians as Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig, who arrived in Nagano Monday night (Japan time) and played in a consolation game for his native Germany on Tuesday afternoon.

"Fourteen time zones is very radical; it's too bad they don't have more time to recover," said Diana Fairechild, a former flight attendant who has traveled to Japan from New York (14 hours' difference) and California (17 hours' difference) more than 300 times.

While they may feel fatigued and distracted, Kolzig and other Olympic latecomers will not be adversely affected because they played so soon, said Vinod Mody, director of travel medicine at Howard University Hospital.

"They are used to performing. They will perhaps have to rest more," Mody said.

Many physicians agree that a quick recovery from jet lag depends on how well the traveler nurses himself before, during and after the trip.

The most important intervention, Waldhorn says, is getting exposed to natural light. "The part of the brain that controls your biological clock is right behind the eyes and is affected by this stimulus," he said.

Mody suggests adjusting to the local time zone before arriving in the new city, including eating meals and sleeping at the adjusted times. Avoid alcohol, carbonated beverages and medications that promote or prevent sleep, and drink more water or juice than you normally do.

Flying home to Washington from Japan will be more difficult for the Capitals players because the actual day is shortened, some experts suggest. It is more difficult to recover from an abbreviated day (making yourself go to sleep when you're not tired, for instance) than it is to force yourself to stay awake.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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