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Is Fasting the Best Way To Overcome Jet Lag?

There’s a foolproof solution for beating jet lag? It turns out the trick may just be fasting on a particular diet of carbs and proteins.

I’m going to say it right now. It sounds a little bogus, but the world always has an interesting way of surprising me.

Though I’ve heard that food can play a big factor in how people adjust to new time zones before, there’s usually very little scientific substantiation for many other approaches I’ve heard about. The Argonne Anti-Jet-Lag diet seems different than most because it’s a systematic method of feasting and fasting developed by a molecular biologist named Charles Ehret in the late 1980s. Ronald Reagan also subscribed to it, but then again, I guess he was also an actor once.

There are many factors that affect jet lag, such as exposure to light and mental stimulation, but one of Ehret’s theories was that “our biological clocks are [at least partially] cued in part by when and how much we eat.” To boot, a few researchers from Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston also found some evidence that backed this claim a few years ago. Quite succinctly:

Ehret theorized that the diet worked because the days of irregular eating gradually unmoored the body’s biological clock from its usual rhythms, while the big breakfast and subsequent meals re-anchored the clock in the new time zone.

The diet basically requires the person traveling to alternate days of feasting and fasting, starting about four days before they arrive at their destination. Like any good diet worth its weight, it discriminates between what types of food you should be eating during specific times of the day. In this case, it would be proteins and carbs.

The theory goes that protein stimulates adrenaline and gives long-lasting energy; whereas carbs activates short-term energy but really encourages sleep. Be forewarned, the diet somewhat exclusively forbids alcohol — even on the plane. Caffeine is allowed, but in very, very limited doses, so coffee addicts will need to watch out.

It’s outlined in his out-of print book, Overcoming Jet Lag, which has detailed instructions depending on the direction and length of a flight. Surprisingly, it’s actually somewhat a really interesting read, but the Netlib Repository also has a step-by-step summary of the diet. In case that’s not enough, I’ve actually gone ahead and turned it into a PDF and Kindle version with notes from the actual book for easy reference if you want to try it out.

People has a pretty good in-depth overview of the specifics as well. You don’t necessarily need to worry about eating at the meal times of your destination time zone for the most part, except for the very last day or so:

You should begin the diet three days before your flight. Try to give up all liquor and wine for the duration of the diet, and drink coffee, tea, colas and other caffeinated beverages only between 3 and 5 p.m. If taken in the morning or evening, caffeine disrupts the body clock.

The first day of your program is a feast day, and you can have all the ham, steak and eggs you want for breakfast and lunch. But in order to encourage sleep, [dinner] must be low in protein and high in carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread and desserts.

Day Two is a fast day. You should still have a light, high-protein breakfast and lunch and a light dinner, but you should consume no more than 800 calories. A typical fast menu would be eggs and cottage cheese for breakfast, tuna for lunch, and salad and fruit for dinner…

Day Three—the day before the flight—is another feast day with a high-protein breakfast and lunch and a high-carbohydrate [dinner].

Flying day starts out as a fast day. Eat a low-calorie, high-protein breakfast and lunch, but then a high-carbohydrate [dinner]. Between 7 and 11 p.m., no matter where you are, drink two to three cups of black coffee or strong, plain tea. If yours is a night flight and everyone in [your destination is] asleep… so you should start doing as the Romans do and try to sleep too. That could be difficult because of all the caffeine in your system. “The important thing is to relax,” advises Ehret. “When you close your eyes and stop socializing, your body chemistry achieves a state of rest. Don’t watch the movie, don’t read and don’t talk.” Above all, avoid alcohol. Although it may help you sleep, drinking will only upset your body rhythms.

If you are still en route when its breakfast time [in your destination]… get up anyway, wash your face and brush your teeth. The most important aspect of this phase is to eat a high-protein breakfast because, Ehret says, it signals “your central nervous system that a new time frame has begun.” You can then play solitaire, search the skies for UFOs or do anything, just stay awake.

Obviously, the real question is if the diet works. There, however, does seem to be a lot of secondhand sources that have reported that everyone from the U.S. Army, Navy, CIA and even the Canadian National Swim Team have all used the diet. According to Harper’s:

In a study published in the journal Military Medicine, National Guardsmen who followed the diet were found to be 7.5 times less likely than a control group to suffer jet lag after flying from the United States to Korea. On their return, they were 16.2 times less likely to lag.

Steve Hendricks, the author of the article, decided also to test it on a trip to India with his family. They even had a proper control—his eight-year old son—who reportedly didn’t fare too well and spent most of the trip in an unconscious, lassi-induced blur. It’s also curious that the Ehret book itself seems to receive a lot of positive feedback.

The definite downside to the diet is that it requires actual effort and planning; it’s not just something that you can throw together. It will also probably require you to order special meals from the airline. While the actual effort can seem inconvenient, I suppose you could also make the argument that suffering from jet lag on a trip you’re required to function on is just as bad.

Look, I’m not saying that Caveman diet works or anything, but tricks of the trade always interest me. I’m still not completely sold. If I only had the same discipline that others had when it came to food…

[Harper's Magazine]

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