Commentary — March 5, 2012, 1:25 pm

The Empty Stomach: Fasting to Beat Jet Lag

Steve Hendricks wrote “Starving Your Way to Vigor: The benefits of an empty stomach” in the March 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author, most recently, of A Kidnapping in Milan” The CIA on Trial (W. W. Norton).

An airplane is a conveyance whose purpose, like a reformatory’s, is to torment its inmates. If you are willing to encapsulate yourself in a plane for a long distance, its owners will assume you are of stronger stuff than the plebeian domestic passenger, and will put before you a meal calculated to break you. You, seeking relief from your torment, will eat this manufactured slop even though you know you are doing yourself more harm than good. You may even compound your folly by drinking the simulacrum of wine that is passed out in little plastic bottles. The only benefit in the whole affair is that your jet lag will seem less hideous by comparison.

My species of jet lag tends to the particularly hideous. Even a (relatively) short hop to Europe can leave me with a week of lethargy and brain-fog. My trips to the Far East are too horrific to commit to print. It was therefore with pleasure that, before setting out for India last month, I learned that by skipping the in-flight fare, I might skip the jet lag as well.

The Argonne Anti–Jet-Lag diet, as the putative antidote is known, was devised in the 1980s by the late Charles Ehret, a “chronobiologist” at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois who discovered that our biological clocks are cued in part by when and how much we eat. After experimenting on protozoa, rats, and his eight children, Ehret recommended that the international traveler, in the several days before his flight, alternate days of feasting with days of very light eating. Come the flight, the traveler would nibble sparsely until eating a big breakfast at about 7:30 a.m. in his new time zone—no matter that it was still 1:30 a.m. in the old time zone or that the airline wasn’t serving breakfast until 10:00 a.m. His reward would be little or no jet lag.

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. In a 2002 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. (The difference between the two flights has not been explained, although, as the authors noted, jet lag is more common flying east than flying west.)

The Army, Navy, CIA, Canadian National Swim Team, and Mormon Tabernacle Choir have all used the diet. So too an aged Ronald Reagan, who I had previously assumed looked so fresh on arrival in Bangkok or Bitburg because he was unburdened by the cares of his office. To my taste, however, the diet had two big drawbacks. For one, Ehret prescribed a fairly narrow range of foods. (For feast-day lunches: “Suitable meals include steak, eggs, hamburgers, high-protein cereals, green beans.” For dinners: “spaghetti and other pastas (but no meatballs), crepes (but no meat filling), potatoes, other starchy vegetables.”) For another, it is devilishly hard to eat very little for whole days—harder than eating nothing—because the taste of food stimulates the desire for more food. Enduring this sort of unpleasantness for days before emplaning in order to avoid unpleasantness for days after deplaning seemed the proverbial cutting off of the nose to vex the face.

Fortunately, in the past few years a team from Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston has concocted a more elegant remedy: the anti–jet lag fast. The international traveler, they counsel, can avoid jet lag by simply not eating for twelve to sixteen hours before breakfast time in the new time zone—at which point, as in Ehret’s diet, he should break his fast. Since most of us go twelve to sixteen hours between dinner and breakfast anyway, the abstention is a small hardship.

According to the Harvard team, the fast works because our bodies have, in addition to our circadian clock, a second clock that might be thought of as a food clock or, perhaps better, a master clock. When food is scarce, this master clock suspends the circadian clock and commands the body to sleep much less than normally. Only after the body starts eating again does the master clock switch the circadian clock back on.

The master clock probably evolved because when our prehistoric forebears were starving, they would have been tempted in their weakness to sleep rather than forage for the food they needed to survive. Today, when a traveler suspends his circadian clock before flying from Los Angeles to London, and then reactivates it upon breaking the fast, the clock doesn’t know that it should still be on Pacific Time. It knows only that the breakfast and the daylight declare morning in Mayfair, and it resets the body’s rhythms accordingly.

As yet, there have been no human trials to prove or deny the efficacy of the Harvardian fast, but the body of anecdotal evidence in its favor is large. I decided to employ my family in adding to the largesse.

From takeoff in Denver to touchdown in Delhi took twenty-four hours. My wife and I ate our last food on the Chicago–Frankfurt leg and skipped the swill thereafter. We arrived in Delhi at two in the morning, slept, and arose at eight to a glorious repast of dosas and samosas. To our pleasant surprise, we had more than enough vitality throughout the day to trade refreshing elbows with the patrons of the Delhi Metro. Nor on subsequent days did we feel the slightest hint of jet lag.

Our son fared less well. Children, to every traveling parent’s dismay, rarely suffer jet lag to the degree of their betters. (The eighteenth round of hide-and-seek on the first night in Venice is as good a reason as any for leaving your progeny with the dogsitter.) So we had seen no need to fast our nine-year-old. We were also not opposed to having a control group for our experiment. And what a control it was. On the first four or five afternoons in India, our son collapsed in an insensate heap, utterly unstirred by his elixir of choice, mango lassi.

On the return home, all three of us fasted. This time the young master was time’s master, my wife again its mistress. They awoke full of vim on the morning after our journey. Not so I. In our last few days in Mumbai, I had contracted shingles, and on reentry I was as sluggish as I would have been, I suspect, had I not fasted at all. But of course whether the shingles alone caused my fatigue or whether my fast had failed me, too, is a mystery beyond answer.

The same air of mystery hangs over the question of whether my family’s successes against jet lag were the result of fasting. Perhaps we merely enjoyed a placebo effect. Perhaps we benefited from some heretofore undiscovered preventive—say, eating a kiwi or a curry precisely 62 hours before takeoff. I do not know. I know only that the next time a steward asks me, “Chicken stroganoff or bean-curd ziti?” I will reply, “I think a sparkling water will do me just fine.”

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More from Steve Hendricks:

From the March 2012 issue

Starving Your Way to Vigor

The benefits of an empty stomach

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