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.”

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Steve Hendricks:

From the March 2012 issue

Starving your way to vigor

The benefits of an empty stomach

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Gatekeepers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
Article
The Vanishing·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Article
Investigating Hate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Article
Preservation Acts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Average life span, in years, of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:

25

Researchers in California succeeded in teaching genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to communicate using a new chemical “language”; the research aims at turning cells into tiny robots.

Theresa May’s Brexit proposal was rejected; Trump suggested raking to prevent forest fires; Jair Bolsonaro insulted Cuban doctors working in Brazil

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today