How To Beat Jet Lag Easily With 1 Simple Diet Hack
“How do I beat jet lag?”
It’s one of the most common questions travelers ask, and with good reason, since every resource online tries to make jet lag into something more complicated than it is.
So let’s start off with a simple, clear definition of what jet lag actually means:
Jet lag is a combination of symptoms – headaches, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, diminished concentration, etc. – caused by a rapid and significant change in circadian rhythms.
And while we’re on the topic, a circadian rhythm is simply the 24-hour cycle that every cell in our bodies (and the bodies of all animals) use to dictate when we should be asleep and when we should be awake.
Now, we’ve known for a long time that light exposure matters a great deal in how our brain manages our circadian rhythms, which in turn is the root cause of jet lag: when we change time zones, our circadian rhythms become confused and don’t know when we should sleep and when we should be awake.
And so most “experts” have approached the light-centric perspective of jet lag with two primary solutions:
- Before you fly, alter the time you go to sleep by 1-2 hours each night until you are sleeping in sync with destination time zone. For example, if you are flying 12 time zones away, go to bed 2 hours earlier every night for 6 nights leading up to your flight (eg. midnight on Day 1, 10pm on Day 2, 8pm on Day 3, etc.), OR
- After you arrive, seek out natural light in the morning and avoid it in the afternoon if you’re flying east, or seek out afternoon light and avoid morning light if you’re flying west.
Yet as you can probably see, there’s a massive problem with these “solutions”:
They’re Extremely Difficult AND Horribly Inconvenient!
Not only is it tough to go to bed just 2 hours before you normally do, do you really expect yourself to be able to fall asleep at 2pm on Day 5 or noon on Day 6? No matter how much willpower I’ve got, I know it’s not going to happen.
And on top of that, these fixes don’t account for the fact that people have real lives to attend to during this process, and they can’t just throw everything out the window to do a week-long jet lag preparation.
Think about it: how would your boss react if you told him you had to take the afternoon off so you could sleep? My guess is not very well.
Clearly, We Need A Better Solution (Keep Reading…)
In 2008, the brilliant Dr. Clifford B. Saper et al published Differential Rescue of Light- and Food-Entrainable Circadian Rhythms, a monumental piece of research delving into the intricacies of our internal body clocks. The first two sentences of the abstract to that study tell you just about everything you need to know:
“When food is plentiful, circadian rhythms of animals are powerfully entrained by the light-dark cycle. However, if animals have access to food only during their normal sleep cycle, they will shift most of their circadian rhythms to match the food availability.”
Saper has discovered that on top of our circadian rhythms, which are known to be the primary driver of our main body clock, another, more powerful body clock takes over when food becomes scarce. In this case, regardless of light exposure, this food-focused body clock takes precedence over the light-focused one.
In Other Words, Food Intake Can Also Regulate Our Sleep Cycles
This is groundbreaking research. For centuries we have believed that light exposure is always the primary driver of our sleep patterns, yet Saper’s research adds an extremely important caveat that we never expected. And fasting adjusts your body clock much, much quicker than altering light exposure does.
In his own words:
“A period of fasting with no food at all for about 16 hours is enough to engage this new clock”
– Dr. Clifford B. Saper
Introducing: The 16-Hour Fast
The 16-Hour Fast sounds horrible, but it’s actually extremely simple.
Just two things matter here, and everything else does not:
- The time you normally eat breakfast.
- The time your flight lands.
Why does the time you eat breakfast matter?
Because when this food-centric body clock is engaged, what signals the body to be awake is the presence of food, not the presence of light. So upon eating after fasting for 16 hours, your body receives the signal that it’s time to start your day. Of course, you can do the same thing and start by eating at lunchtime instead of breakfast (if your flight lands at 2pm, for example), but try to stick to breakfast as often as you can.
As for your landing time, that determines the exact period you should fast, simply by working backwards from the nearest breakfast time to when you land. So, with that said:
Your first meal following The 16-Hour Fast should be breakfast at your normal time in your destination.
Here’s exactly how to apply it:
Situation 1: New York to Stockholm (Flying East)
Let’s suppose you’re taking the 7-hour flight from New York to Stockholm. You normally eat breakfast at 8am in New York, and your flight lands in Stockholm at 11am.
To beat jet lag in this situation, you want your first meal to be at 8am Stockholm time, or 3 hours before you land. That means that you’ll need to fast for the first 4 hours of the flight plus 12 additional hours before that, which works out to a starting time of 10am New York time on the morning that you fly.
Situation 2: Hong Kong to Dubai (Flying West)
What if you’re flying west from Hong Kong to Dubai instead? You like sleeping in and normally eat breakfast at 11am, but this time your flight lands at the awkward hour of 1am.
No problem. In this case, you’ll want to push your first meal until breakfast after you arrive, which comes 10 hours after you land. That said, you should fast for the final 6 hours of the flight, plus the 10 hours after you land, so that you enjoy your first meal at 11am Dubai time.
Drinking water is encouraged on The 16-Hour Fast, though caffeine and alcohol (and any other drinks like juices, etc.) are prohibited, since both dehydrate you and thus counteract the benefits of drinking water (not to mention either caffeine or alcohol on an empty stomach is a bad idea at sea level, let alone 30,000 feet in the air).
To summarize it in a single phrase, this is your new jet lag avoidance protocol:
Fast for the 16 hours before eating breakfast at your regular time at your destination.
What Should You Eat For Your First Breakfast?
You don’t need to be super specific here – what’s most important is that a) you eat something your body is accustomed to, and b) whatever that is, it’s healthy. Of course, everyone has their own definition of what healthy is (I won’t get into mine here), but we can all safely agree that a healthy breakfast looks more like eggs and fruit than it does Pop Tarts and Coca-Cola. Be smart here, since after The 16-Hour Fast your body will be absorbing just about everything you put into it. It’s hard to go wrong with high proteins and some sort of fruits and/or vegetables.
Why Is The 16-Hour Fast Better Than Other Methods?
For a technique to beat jet lag to be a good one, it needs to pass two simple tests:
- Is it effective (ie. Does it actually beat jet lag, not just slow/reduce it)?
- Does it fit into a regular lifestyle?
The 16-Hour Fast is proven to be effective. Since Dr. Saper published his original research back in 2008, travelers have raved about the benefits of fasting in beating jet lag. I’ve personally tried it on several flights earlier this year (Hong Kong to London, Johannesburg to Hong Kong) and was blown away by its effectiveness. I didn’t feel like I’d flown at all, which is in stark contrast to the 2-3 days it normally takes me to get over jet lag.
Second, The 16-Hour Fast fits easily into modern life. Unless you have an extremely flexible lifestyle that allows you to go to bed at noon, traditional methods of beating jet lag are difficult to implement. And even if you do have that luxury, going to bed at noon is still extremely difficult for the exact reasons we talked about above. Without fasting, your light-sensitive body clock runs the show, which means putting your body to sleep throughout the day on short notice is going to be one hell of a circus. I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.
Other Techniques / Myths And Why They Don’t Work
Below are the four most common techniques that “experts” prescribe, though we’ll see why none of them pass the two tests above.
MYTH 1: Alter Your Sleep Cycles For 4+ Days Before You Fly
We’ve already covered this one, but it’s worth mentioning again, since it’s the most common advice given to travelers. Not only is it a painfully slow adjustment that can take up to 12 days for long flights, but the amount of time you end up thinking about jet lag is enough to ruin your vacation on its own. Don’t fall for conventional “wisdom” here.
MYTH 2: Plan A Stopover
Yes, some people actually recommend this, and granted, there is some merit to it, just as there’s merit to going to sleep 1-2 hours earlier each day leading up to your flight. Both methods will slightly reduce the effects of jet lag, but neither avoid the effects entirely, and both are extremely disruptive to your lifestyle. And isn’t your lifestyle precisely the thing we’re trying to protect here in the first place?
MYTH 3: Adjust Your Light Exposure Upon Arrival
Many folks will tell you that the key to beating jet lag is adjusting your light exposure so that you receive natural light in the morning while avoiding afternoon light (if you’re flying east), or seeking natural light in the afternoon while avoiding morning light (if you’re flying west).
There’s a massive problem with this: who wants to be scared of the light when they’re traveling? The last thing I want to do when I arrive in Rome is avoid the beautiful afternoon sunshine, and I’m definitely not going to skip sunrise over Mt. Fuji. As far as lifestyle compatibility goes, this technique is just awful.
MYTH 4: The Argonne Diet
If you really look at it, the Argonne Diet, originally developed by Dr. Charles F. Ehret in the 1980s, is just a much more complicated version of The 16-Hour Fast! Here’s just one section of Step 2 of the many steps involved in following the Argonne Diet:
- On Day 1, FEAST; eat heartily with high-protein breakfast and lunch and a high-carbohydrate dinner. No coffee except between 3 and 5 p.m. On Day 2, FAST on light meals of salads, light soups, fruits and juices. Again, no coffee except between 3 and 5 p.m. On Day 3, FEAST again. On day 4, FAST; if you drink caffeinated beverages, take them in morning when traveling west, or between 6 and 11 p.m. when traveling east.
That’s a lot to remember, not to mention implement. Yet the crucial, valuable components of the Argonne Diet come in the first step and the final step. Here it is, verbatim:
- Determine when breakfast time will be at your destination.
- Break your ”fast” by having a high-protein breakfast at the predetermined breakfast time in your destination city.
As it turns out, Ehret was onto something big, but he chose to complicate it in such a way that made it worthless for most regular travelers. After all, who wants to change their entire diet for 4 full days just to avoid jet lag when all you need is 16 hours?
Summary Of Techniques
|The 16-Hour Fast||High||High|
|Change your sleep cycles||Moderate||Very Low|
|Plan a stopover||Moderate||Low|
|Adjust your light exposure||Moderate||Very Low|
|The Argonne Diet||High||Low|
Should You Use Melatonin For Jet Lag?
Melatonin is a naturally-produced hormone that signals to the body that it’s time to sleep. As a result, many travelers swear by melatonin pills as a jet lag cure-all, and I’ve even taken some 3 mg melatonin supplements myself when I have difficulty sleeping (albeit not in a jet lag situation).
From a research perspective, the scientific community is still divided on whether melatonin aids in beating jet lag: some studies will tell you it helps, while others will tell you it won’t. One thing is for certain, though: if you insist on taking melatonin, you should only do so around the time you’d like to fall asleep in your destination time zone. Taking melatonin at odd hours of the day that don’t coincide with your normal sleep cycle can make your jet lag significantly worse, not better, and that’s not fun for anyone.
Still, if you apply The 16-Hour Fast, you won’t need melatonin or any other techniques to beat jet lag. It’s powerful enough on its own.
The Secret To Beating Jet Lag: The 16-Hour Fast
It’s dead simple, doesn’t take over your life, and leaves you feeling fresh in your new home, wherever that happens to be.