Fight Science: UFC 144 Could Serve As A Reminder Of The Effects Of Jet Lag

Fighting in the fourth dimension could be hazardous to one's health. Image via Dave Friel.

In his post fight interview at UFC on Fuel, Stefan Struve complained that his performance wasn't the best because of jet lag. To anyone listening, they might have scoffed at the notion. After all, surely Dave Herman's Larry Talbot on a full moon appearance, and crisp right hands were more to blame for Struve's unusually tentative performance in the opening round? Or did Struve have a point?

How real is jet lag? Should fighters fear the fourth dimension this weekend?

To answer that question let's crunch some numbers. I always sucked at math, so this won't be complicated. Consider this: Struve fought around 9 pm central time that Nebraska night. Being from the Netherlands, this means for Struve, the moment he crushed Herman with that right uppercut would have normally been substituted with a deep peaceful sleep at 4 am in the morning. But let's translate that into biology speak.

Deep inside the hypothalamus of the brain exists a center for ‘time control' called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. The what? We'll call it the SCN for short. The SCN is unique in that it has a direct relationship with your eyes. So it works like this. The SCN is sent information from the eyes (specifically ganglion cells, distinct from rods and cones) because the SCN responds to fluctuations in light. When the SCN detects daylight, it prevents the release of melatonin, the so called ‘sleep hormone'. Without daylight, the SCN can no longer control melatonin's release. And thus your internal clock is born.

This is a gross oversimplification. Flipping through the pages of Scientific American, words like substantia nigra, paraventricular nucleus, and melanopsin are included in Karen Wright's explanation of our biological clocks. What's even more interesting is that it is not just this unique little center that models our circadian rhythms.

"...in the mid-1990s, researchers discovered four critical genes that govern circadian rhythms in flies, mice, and humans. These genes turned up not just in the SCN but everywhere else too.

...More recently, researchers at Harvard University found that in the expression of more than 1,000 genes in the heart and liver tissue of mice varied in regular 24-hour periods."

In other words, it's probably not just your brain taking cues from your retina as it detects the presence or absence of light. It's the entire body, all working individually (skin cells do this, secreting more oil during the day than at night).

As Wright notes, "The autonomy of the peripheral clocks makes a phenomenon such as jet lag far more comprehensible. Whereas the interval timer, like a stopwatch, can be reset in an instant, circadian rhythms take days and sometimes weeks to adjust to a sudden shift in day length or time zone."

"A new schedule of light will slowly reset the SCN clock. But the other clocks may not follow its lead. The body is not only lagging: it's lagging at a dozen different paces."*


It's precisely the harmony of these biological clocks that creates the typical life cycle. Two hours after midnight is your deepest sleep (for me this is when the John Carpenter marathon begins). Six hours after, and your blood pressure dramatically rises (explaining why heart attacks are more likely to occur in the morning). Nine hours in, and testosterone is at its highest. Et cetera.

For Struve, at the same time his body temperature is normally at its lowest (4 am), he was now in the middle of a prizefight at a time when his body experiences a tenfold increase in the secretion of melatonin (9 pm), which helps trigger sleep.

Could this be critical for the combatants of UFC 144? Frankie Edgar and Ben Henderson will be fighting for the title in the afternoon as opposed to a typical late night evening.

The thesis of this piece is not that everyone will look terrible because their body clocks will be turned upside down. This may be true of some fighters, and I think it helps explain why Japanese fighters have so often looked flat in their stateside debuts (though I would never reduce their lack of success to "jet lag": only that I think there's truth to it being a factor).

In fact, assuming they've adjusted to the time zone differences, they should be more alert. Pay per views starting late in the evening may good for business, but it's bad biology. Cardiiovascular efficiency and muscle strength peak at 7 p.m. Might we see better performances from prizefighters if events started earlier?

At least one institution caught on. As Linda Geddes reported in the New Scientist (October, 2011), a school in the UK (Monkseaton High School in Tyneside) experienced dramatic improvements in the student population: less absences, less tardiness, and better grades all because (or rather, in connection with) the Head teacher Dr. Paul Kelley decided to open the school at 10 am.

The science of 'jet lag' is not exactly formula. But it makes sense to suspect that a fighter may not be able to flow as well as he could if he's getting punched in the face at the same time his body is beginning to activate his bowel movements. Let's hope poor Chris Cariaso (the American fighting the earliest, and tasked with facing the rugged boxing of contender Takaya Mizugaki) doesn't have a Tim Sylvia moment in order for us to find out.

*The disruption of multiple "clocks" may also help explain disorders like schizophrenia.

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