If you’ve ever taken an intercontinental flight – or heck, jetted from coast to coast – chances are you’re probably no stranger to jet lag. Now, new research from Harvard University suggests that simply changing your meal times can help speed your adjustment to a new time zone.
When we discuss jet lag, what we’re really discussing is an interruption in the body’s circadian rhythm, that is, the internal master clock that governs our sleeping patterns as well as the precise timing of certain hormone secretions, brain wave patterns, and cellular repair and regeneration. Disruptions to this critical clock – either through frequent travel or shift work – can result in sleep disturbances and reductions in mental acuity in its mildest form, but is also thought to contribute to depression, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders.
However, scientists over the past few years have suggested that a second clock, known as the “feeding clock,” may also help govern the body’s internal clock.
Writing in the journal Science, Harvard researchers studied a series of mice that had been manipulated to remove a “key” clock gene known as Bmal1. By transplanting this gene to various areas of the brain, the researchers were able to pinpoint the feeding clock to an area of the brain’s hypothalamus known as the dorsomedial nucleus. In doing so, the researchers noted that the feeding clock is capable of overriding the circadian clock under certain circumstances, such as when food is scarce and the animal needs to be kept awake until it can get the food it needs to survive.
Based on these findings they hypothesize that a period of fasting of about 16 hours could trigger the feeding clock to override the circadian clock, thus speeding adjustment to a new time zone or shift schedule. However, the study’s lead author does note that while this finding could prove “potentially beneficial” to weary travelers and shift workers, he warns that “it’s never going to make the symptoms disappear entirely.”
What does this mean in practical terms? Consider this your “get out of jail free” card for forgoing calorie-laden – not to mention subpar – airline food! So, for a flight from New York City to California, which takes about six hours (plus an estimated three hours of time spent traveling to and from the airport, standing in line for security and then wrestling your bag off the luggage carousel) you could eat a normal, healthy meal at home and then another normal, healthy meal once you’ve arrived at your final destination!
However, for some people, the thought of going 16 hours without food is simply not feasible. If this is the case, opt for snacks such as nuts or a sliced apple with cheese to tide you over and be sure to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and spicy or heavy foods, which can cause interrupted sleep not only in-flight but also once you land.
For more MDA-approved tips on avoiding jet lag check out this archived post.