Charles F. Ehret; Devised Method to Fight Jet Lag

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Charles F. Ehret, 83, a scientist whose study of circadian rhythms led to a widely popular anti-jet lag regimen that improved the trips of untold numbers of world travelers, died Feb. 24 of multiple illnesses at his home in Grayslake, Ill.

In more than 35 years of experimentation, Dr. Ehret found that the headaches, nausea, disorientation, fatigue and malaise suffered by globe-trotters had almost nothing to do with thin air and the dizzying effects of supersonic speed, as was commonly assumed.

Rather, jet lag is a matter of crossing too many time zones too quickly for the body to adjust. It can be ameliorated by adjusting eating, activity and sleep schedules according to a strict system that Dr. Ehret developed from experiments with single-celled organisms, rats, his eight children and volunteers.

Argonne National Laboratory, near Lemont, Ill., where Dr. Ehret worked, began distributing wallet cards that outlined the suggested diet plan. Over the years, more than a half-million cards were distributed. The laboratory said in 2004 that its research showed that travelers who use the diet were seven times less likely to experience jet lag when traveling east and 16 times less likely when traveling west.

But reducing the effects of jet lag works better if diet is just one part of the regimen, Dr. Ehret thought, so he and Lynne Waller Scanlon wrote the 160-page guide "Overcoming Jet Lag" (1983). Its precepts were eagerly adopted by President Ronald Reagan, the Army's Rapid Deployment Force, Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, professional athletes, business people, diplomats and shift workers.

Dr. Ehret appeared on the "Today" show, testified before a U.S. House subcommittee hearing in 1983 on shift work and fielded phone calls from the rock group Aerosmith. As a pioneer in the field of chronobiology, Dr. Ehret was always willing to explain, simply but accurately, the cause of jet lag and how human bodies can adjust.

"Every cell in the body is a clock," he told interviewers, "and they're all brought together by a special pacemaker in the brain."

He continued: "When light strikes the eye, neurotransmitters are released that send an immediate signal to specific regions of the brain. In turn, these brain regions signal the rest of the body that your awake-and-active phase is about to begin."

The problem is that the body, working on a cycle of 24 to 25 hours, gets out of sync with the environment when people cross time zones in jets. Jet lag, Dr. Ehret said, lasts about a day per time zone, and it's worse when traveling east because it's harder to speed up the biological clock.

Applying his research, Dr. Ehret devised an exquisitely calibrated dietary "clock resetting" system, often abbreviated as "feast-fast, feast-fast." Dr. Ehret, an international traveler who suffered from jet lag, used himself as a guinea pig and persuaded friends and family members to try versions of the diet.

"He was very proud of what he had done -- we all were," said Ken Groh, a former colleague who worked in Dr. Ehret's laboratory.

"It's not the kind of work that Jonas Salk got for developing the polio vaccine, but he was certainly very proud of what he had done. And it does work, if you pay attention to what's laid out in the book."

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