Graphic: Karl Gustafson
FeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.  

I love everything about sleep. I love its health benefits, I love how it enhances creativity, I love the way it makes me feel in the morning. I love sleep so much, I encourage people who work for me to take a midday nap for all the proven productivity advantages. I own every sleep app on my phone. I own blackout curtains. I wear orange glasses before bedtime that eliminates blue lights impeding the nighttime onset of melatonin. When our now-three-year-old was born, my wife and I were militant about setting a firm sleeping schedule, and now the boy sleeps 7 to 7 every night with a 90-minute nap during the day, on schedule, like an atomic clock. Mom and dad are grateful.

Which explains why the idea of traveling scares me. All the fear stems from messing up my extremely precise sleep schedule, any deviation of which would make me feel like shit. When I found out I was traveling to Hong Kong for work, a 13-hour time difference from my hometown Chicago, I looked into every remedy to combat jet lag, from memory-foam neck pillows to sleep-light machines to sleeping pills.

The technique I settled on came from, of all places, the Argonne National Laboratory, a research facility from the U.S. Department of Energy. It involves readjusting your eating schedule to reset your circadian rhythm, and folks, it worked wonders.

The Argonne Anti-Jet Lag Diet was conceived by one Dr. Charles F. Ehret, who worked for the center’s biological and medical research division and developed the diet in order to help workers with changing schedules to adjust to overnight shifts. The idea boils down to this: Your stomach is a second biological clock in your body, in addition to the one in the suprachiasmatic nucleus inside your brain. The theory goes that if you can reset your eating schedule—trick your stomach into thinking it’s breakfast at your destination—it’ll make adjusting to the time zone a lot easier. In fact, in a study of 186 deployed soldiers, those who didn’t employ this diet were found to be 7.5 more times susceptible to jet lag than those who did. I had to try it out myself.

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Let me walk you through my Anti-Jet Lag Diet schedule. I would leave for Hong Kong on a Wednesday. The diet began four days earlier.

Day 1, Saturday: Feast

I went nuts. I ate a big, meaty breakfast, and as suggested, a high-carb dinner (spaghetti carbonara). I don’t drink a lot of caffeine, but if you did, the diet suggests you not drink caffeinated beverages until late afternoon.

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Day 2, Sunday: Fast

I took it easy. Ate fruit, salads, and light, brothy soups. I knew in Hong Kong I’d be eating like a madman, so that helped fend off any cravings I encountered. I tried to avoid any carbs on this day.

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Day 3, Monday: Feast

Repeat Saturday’s gorge-a-thon. Meats, cheeses, sandwiches. Had noodles for dinner, and a bowl of ice cream. Carbs help me fall asleep.

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Day 4, Tuesday: Fast

Same deal as Sunday. Low carbs, lean meats, lots of liquids.

Departure day, Wednesday: Fast until breakfast time at destination

This was the tough day, but I kept thinking of the delicious sleep awaiting me in Hong Kong. I repeated the previous day’s light eating. I calculated when breakfast time would be in Hong Kong, and allowed myself to break the fast at its corresponding time in Chicago. I’d eat breakfast in Hong Kong at 7:30 a.m., so I waited until 6:30 p.m Chicago time—when I was already in the air—to eat a big meaty “breakfast.” Fortunately this coincided with dinner service on the plane. Five hours later, I ate during what would be lunchtime in Hong Kong. I landed around 8 p.m. Hong Kong time, and when I arrived at the home I was staying, I ate a big ol’ dinner. Then I crashed and fell asleep by 10 p.m., like a baby.

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The results

Sure, I would wake up at 5 a.m. every morning during my weeklong stay, but other than that I didn’t have trouble falling asleep or waking up at inopportune times. You can’t help but be a bit tired when you travel, but I was also putting in 20,000 steps walking around the city. I managed to squeeze in a 30-minute nap a few days, but other than that, I fought off jet lag like a champ. If you’re traveling overseas, you should look into this diet.

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