The Jet Lag Diet Explained

Can you eat your way to reducing jet lag when you travel? Quite possibly with the Argonne jet lag diet.

The idea of a jet lag diet has been tossed around for decades. For the globe-trotting businessperson or vacation traveler, the debilitating effects of jet lag are no laughing matter. We explore the kinds of food and strategies that might reduce the disorientation associated with flying across time zones.

Jet lag is a circadian rhythm problem that affects your body’s internal clock. Simple symptoms might make you feel tired or hungry at unusual parts of the day. But extreme sufferers experience mental confusion, hallucinations, and physical discomfort, which may take days or even weeks to fix. Jet lag could lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, poor concentration, headaches, even gastrointestinal problems. For some, napping or syncing up with the local time zone may not be enough.

Schedules to Match

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic,  you should have a plan of attack for jet lag before you leave home. The goal is to get your body’s clock synced to the time zone where you’re traveling. Unfortunately, the more time zones you travel across (such as a trip from New York to China), the more likely your jet lag will increase.

Doctors recommend that you move your schedule to match more closely your final destination. For example, going west may mean you go to bed an hour later for several nights prior to your trip. You may also wish to stop over in a city along the way to help your body get acclimated.

We’re discovering that food and digestion play an important role, too, in resetting the body’s internal clock. Researchers from the University of Surrey studied long-haul flight crews and report that meal adjustment is critical.

“From our findings, we would predict that changing your meals to match the time in your destination could help with jet lag,” says researcher Dr. Jonathan Johnston. “So if you are flying back home from the U.S., try and eat closer to the time you normally would in Britain.”

From our findings, we would predict that changing your meals to match the time in your destination could help with jet lag,

Scientists at the University of Surrey predict that adjusting eating times could help shift-workers and jet-lagged travelers re-synchronize their body clocks more quickly.

The Jet Lag Diet

Are there certain foods that might alleviate jet lag symptoms? The concept of a jet lag diet was put forth several decades ago by Dr. Charles Ehret, a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

In his Argonne Diet, Ehret believed that your internal clock could be reset faster by a series of feasts and fasts in the days leading up to your departure. On feasting days, breakfasts should be heavy in protein (e.g., eggs) while dinners would be heavy on the carbs. Fasting days take in no more than 800 calories—a very light plate of food for most of us. In short, protein is ingested before large bouts of activity, and carbohydrates are eaten before bedtime.

The high-protein meals on the jet lag diet will stimulate your body’s “active” cycle. High-carbohydrate meals encourage sleep. Ehret believes the modified fasts reduce the liver’s store of glycogen and prepare the body’s clock for resetting to a different time zone.

Ehret told the New York Times that the time zones you expect to cross determine how many days in advance of your departure you should follow his diet. Travel abroad requires up to four days of feasting and fasting.

Jet Lag Diet Regimen

The jet lag diet looks like this for international travel:

  1. Determine when breakfast time will be at your destination.
  2. Four days before the day you expect to arrive, cut out all tea, caffeinated soft drinks, and alcohol except between 3 and 5pm. Stick to your regular meal times.
  3. The first day is a feast day. You should prepare a high-protein, Atkins-style breakfast and lunch that includes eggs, cheese, and meats. For dinner, do a carb overload with pasta, pancakes, potatoes, bread, rice, and sweets. Do not eat high-protein foods for dinner.
  4. On day two, you fast. Eat light meals of salads, soups, fruits and juices. Keep carbohydrates, fats and calories low.
  5. On day three, repeat the feast day.
  6. On day four (the day of your departure), fast again. If you are traveling eastward, consume caffeinated beverages between the hours of 6 and 11pm. If you are traveling westward, consume caffeinated drinks only in the morning. Do not drink any alcohol on the plane.
  7. When you get to your destination, break your fast with a high-protein breakfast.

After breakfast and when approaching your destination, warm up your body with gentle exercise and turn on the overhead reading light. But do not go back to sleep. Follow the local meal customs once you’re off the plane. Ehret recommends eating with others, as social interaction stimulates wakefulness.

The U.S. military tested the Argonne Diet on 186 soldiers traveling to South Korea. Soldiers who tried the Argonne Diet were seven and a half times less likely to experience bad jet lag than those who ate normally.

Dr. Michael Mosley, author of the 5:2 diet, likes the feast-and-fast idea while traveling. Mosley claims that intermittent fasting can help beat jet lag by resetting the body’s complex gut biology.

Mosley emphasizes that on the day of flying, eat at the breakfast time of your destination and do not drink alcohol on the plane. On long-haul flights, try eating and sleeping at the same time as your destination while on the plane. He also recommends bright light to combat jet lag at certain times of the day. You can try a free app like Entrain, which will suggest the best times for light exposure.

Airlines Promote Anti-Jet-Lag Food

Airlines are taking notice of jet lag diets. In early 2018, Qantas announced a new “anti-jet-lag” food and beverage service on its Perth-London direct Dreamliner flights. The menu, designed in conjunction with the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, uses “scientific information that will help reduce the impact of jet lag on long haul flights.”

Menu items vary by service class. Economy travelers can try a probiotic-infused lemonade wake-up shot or hot chocolate, while business travelers get smoked salmon noodles and poached eggs.

In Summary

Traveling is hard on your body. It’s prudent to consider the potential effects of jet lag, a circadian rhythm problem, which can have a major impact on bodily health, sleep, and productivity. The more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to get hit by jet lag. Give yourself time to adapt in a new time zone.

To help prevent jet lag, change your schedule ahead of travel to more closely match your destination. Get a good rest the night before. Reset your watch and clocks to the new destination time when you board the plane.

Travel experts advise that you drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and limit alcohol and caffeine, which can disrupt sleep. You can try herbal tea, melatonin, lavender oil, or pycnogenol to help you get some shut eye. But prescription sleep medications should be used only as a last resort. Seek sunlight and social activities when you arrive.

For international flights, food matters. Modify your diet ahead of traveling. Dr. Ehret’s time-tested Argonne jet lag diet, which mixes feasting with fasting, may help you get over that sluggish feeling by resetting your body’s internal clock. It’s worth a try.