A neurobiologist explains how jet lag could be why Clinton and Trump seem to be losing their minds

One of the only people more tired of the election than you.
One of the only people more tired of the election than you.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Drake
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Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. When combined with jet lag and experienced for weeks or months on end—just as the US’s two presidential candidates have been enduring—it can impair judgment, hamper memory, dull attention, and deplete emotional reserves.

With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump racing from rally to debate to speech to fundraiser—around the US and beyond—the candidates are likely becoming less and less themselves. Sleep deprived or severely jetlagged people cannot keep up facades with the same consistency and skill as well-rested people. So if the faces the candidates have shown us over the past year are not their real ones, the assumed nature of those fake personas will become more and more clear as the candidates wear themselves down.

It’s like the poor candidates are being hazed, moved from time zone to time zone and kept awake at all hours of the day and night (after all, what more prestigious a fraternity to be joining than the Oval Office). When you consider the long list of locations that both Clinton and Trump are planning to visit over the next week, both politicians are likely to be operating at minimal mental capacity—and optimal truthfulness.

As a circadian biologist—someone who studies daily biological rhythms such as sleep—I can tell you that researchers have not yet discovered a quick way for the brain to adjust after a major time shift. Scientists like myself are making progress dealing with the problems caused by jet lag and similar disruptions like shift work, but these rapid changes in time work against our biological wiring.

Every cell in the human body has genetic clockwork that it uses to anticipate changes that will occur over the course of the day: Your level of sleep, meals, activity, sex, and stressors all tend to be relatively consistent from one day to the next. Before electricity allowed us to work around the clock, sunlight was the most stable indicator of the time of day and season. The earliest cells therefore evolved internal clocks so they could proverbially be early birds.

As multicellular organisms (e.g. actual birds and humans) evolved from these single-cell organisms, they had to develop a more sophisticated way of gathering information about their environment. When certain cues—such as sunlight—enter the eyes, they first go through specific brain circuits, down through hormonal and spinal relays, and eventually reach every cell to keep all their clocks wound to the same time. A sudden shift in time disrupts this internal synchrony, and until it is restored, pieces of the brain and body lose coordination, making us stupider, less able to sleep well, and more likely to get sick.

This is what we call jet lag. The more frequent the shift, the worse the problems get, as the body does not have time to recover from one blow before being dealt another. (The rule of thumb is that it takes one day to recover per hour change). The hunt is on to find tools to speed this re-synchronizing, but as yet, no one gets the cigar.

As it ages, the body also has a harder time coordinating all of its different clocks. At 69 and 70 years old (compared to Obama’s comparably youthful 55), Clinton and Trump are not as biologically resilient as they used to be. When Trump lets odder and more offensive comments slip out during debates and speeches, some of it is chicanery, but some of it may just be because he needs a nap.

By the end of the campaign next week, it’s likely that we will have already seen each candidate operating at his or her lowest possible level. While this schedule must be grueling, there is arguably some value in making sure a president is not going to permanently damage international relations because they can’t handle jet lag or can’t focus after a long night of report reading.

Just look at how others have dealt it: Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger apparently advised his aides never to negotiate the day they landed in a foreign country because they would be too jet lagged to think straight. Current secretary of state John Kerry takes the more modern, pharmacological approach: “I take an Ambien,” he once quipped.

But putting your body through these types of difficult paces has obvious downsides as well: Chronic circadian disruptions can add up to a shorter and less healthy life. And it doesn’t end on Election Day—the winner can look forward to at least four more years of disruptions, albeit perhaps at a slower pace. For this reason, it’s no surprise that presidential losers live longer than winners.

To be sure, there are plenty of other stresses that come with the job of being POTUS. But the very real effects of election fatigue prove we as a society still tend to ignore the way our bodies have evolved to depend on stable days. This isn’t just a concern for the rich and powerful: Sleep deprivation and jet lag are both evoked through light and excitement at night just as much as they are by long-distance travel.

Ultimately, this is not the time for anyone to be fighting against their biological instincts. As Nov. 8 nears and more people stay up late reading election articles in bed on their phones or lie awake in the glare of street lights, lamenting the future of America, their ability to make clear-headed decisions about whom to elect is also lessening. Perhaps both we and the politicians we’re considering for office could be more civil if we gave them (and ourselves) a little rest.