Reducing oxygen is generally considered bad for the health. However, new research suggests that doing so for a short period of time may reset one’s circadian rhythm.
Most people have suffered from jet lag at some point in their lives. The cause of jet lag is simple: A disruption of the circadian rhythm. Curing jet lag is much more complex, often requiring days of slowly adjusting to a new sleep/wake cycle. However, new research in the field of chronobiology suggests that reducing oxygen for just a short period of time may reset the circadian rhythm and quickly cure jet lag as well as other circadian sleep disorders.
When Mice Get Jet Lag
While mice do not generally fly across time zones, they indeed can suffer from jet lag. Just as in humans, they can have changes in their environment like daylight savings time and the changing schedules of human caregivers. Like humans, the metabolism of mice, including how much oxygen they use, varies predictably over a 24-hour day.
The symptoms that jet-lagged mice get will sound familiar to any human who has had the disorder: fatigue, lower cognitive function and difficulty sleeping. However, when mice are given lower levels of oxygen in their air for a short period of time just before a large disruption to their circadian rhythm, they appear to adapt almost immediately with none of the side effects common to jet lag.
HIF1α and a Cell’s Oxygen Needs
Researchers quickly determined that HIF1α is the protein responsible for this response to low-oxygen environments. HIF1α is a protein that tells cells how to use oxygen and even how much to use. It also appears to be involved in a variety of other cell processes, many of which are oxygen-dependent. Mice that had the gene for this protein disabled did not respond to changes in oxygen levels with a reset circadian rhythm as fully-functional mice did.
Could Low Oxygen Levels Reset Circadian Rhythm in Humans?
Human lives are generally more complex than those of mice. We have a variety of circadian rhythm complaints, from jet lag to the problems of shift work. A disrupted circadian rhythm has been linked to diseases ranging from type 2 diabetes to heart disease. In addition, jet lag can cause discomfort as people must spend days adjusting to changes similar to adjusting to changes in work schedule and even daylight savings time.
Because people also have this protein, this may have huge implications for human health. People may be able to strap on a face mask and breath low oxygen air for just a few minutes, not long enough to cause health problems, and thus reset their circadian rhythm.
Don’t Try This at Home
While the research is promising, it is important not to attempt this as a home remedy. Low oxygen can be dangerous unless it is carefully timed and planned. Until scientists develop a way to make this both safe and accessible to the public, people should stick to remedies proven to be useful such as melatonin, light therapy and other safe ways to reset one’s circadian rhythm.