Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
Over the course of just one week, Michael Young had bounced all over the globe. “I was in Singapore for the last two days — the same way I’m in Seattle right now,” he told me in January. We were, of course, speaking via Zoom — and Young was most certainly not in Seattle. He was sitting in his office at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, sporting a gray-blue sweater and full head of white hair. I was in my one-bedroom apartment in Seattle, wearing a professional-ish top and running tights.
Maybe one of the silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to a more relaxed dress code, has been fewer bouts of jet lag. After winning a Nobel Prize in 2017 for helping to discern the mechanisms driving our circadian clocks, Young became a reluctant frequent flyer. He then dreaded looking at his calendar. He knew all too well, both theoretically and tangibly, how long-distance travel messed with the symphony of tiny timepieces ticking throughout his body.
Nearly every cell and organ in the body has its own clock. They are all synched with one another and with a master clock in the brain through inputs from the outside world. Jet lag torments us by uncoupling those internal rhythms from the sun’s 24-hour cycles — the most influential of the environmental inputs — and from each other. As the light-dark cycle shifts, our fine-tuned physiology drifts. Some organs take longer than others to adjust to the new time zone. As Young puts it: “When you travel halfway around the world, you scatter your clocks. The day you arrive, you feel really rotten because your liver is still somewhere over the Atlantic.”
As a KSJ Project Fellow, I’ve spent the last several months exploring the emerging science of circadian rhythms, mostly from the comfort of that same one-bedroom apartment and, admittedly, often while wearing that same outfit. While I look forward to traveling again in the months ahead, staying home has afforded a few unexpected opportunities. For one, I’ve had interesting interactions with people in far-flung time zones. One of those meetings, with Martha Merrow, a scientist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, caused a circadian disruption of jet lag proportions.
“I haven’t eaten my dinner yet. This is like the worst thing. You’re not supposed to eat at 10 o’clock at night,” Merrow said during our Zoom call. I felt bad. I was the one who suggested this hour, late enough in my time zone that I didn’t have to get up too early and mess up my body clock.
Eating at roughly the same hours every day gives the body the information it needs to predict a meal and prepare for it by secreting the appropriate enzymes ahead of time. By eating so late, Merrow said, she would miss that anticipated window and cause the circadian entrainment of her liver to shift “very, very, very late.” And that could have repercussions throughout her body. Her kidneys, for example, would likely miss the late-arriving meal-time memo from the liver. “What’s it then going to entrain to? It’s going to look around for something else — maybe the heart, maybe the skin, maybe the thyroid,” she said. As a result, she added, the kidneys might well lose track of time and fail to suppress urine production as it normally does during the night: “And maybe I’ll be getting up and peeing all night.”
Ok, now I really felt bad.
It’s been an interesting time to be researching a book, and a particularly interesting time to be researching “time.” The experience of the pandemic has in many ways altered our relationship with that concept. Some of us have shifted our daily routines — from when we get up, to where we work, to how often we step outside or grab a snack. Our eyes are evermore fixed on TVs, Xbox’s, iPhones, and Zoom meetings. We may have noticed that these changes affect our sleep, mood, and productivity. So, what revisions might be worth keeping? Which ones should we quickly ditch? Could a growing recognition of the power of our circadian rhythms, and the havoc wreaked on them by the modern world, inspire other beneficial adjustments to our individual or societal clocks? Only time will tell.
Lynne Peeples is a freelance journalist based in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in publications such as Nature, The Huffington Post, NBC News, and Scientific American.