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."
Dr. Ehret continued to fine-tune the diet based on the thousands of letters he received from travelers. After he retired in 1988, he became president of General Chronobionics Inc., a research and consulting company that worked with the nuclear power industry, U.S. Olympic teams and Stopjetlag.com, a company that sells personalized and expanded versions of his advice.
Argonne licensed the diet to the rival antijetlagdiet.com. The original version is available at http://www.netlib.org/misc/jet-lag-diet.
"He always had a desire to find practical uses for science," said one of his sons, John Ehret of Third Lake, Ill. "In the 1960s, he built the world's largest spectrograph and put a petri dish under each color of the rainbow to determine how light would affect circadian rhythms."
Dr. Ehret also built a model of a photon accelerator but determined that for it to work, it would have had to be a half-mile in diameter. Years later, he consulted with Argonne when it built one.
Dr. Ehret was born in the Bronx, N.Y. He served in the 87th Infantry of Patton's Third Army during World War II, and while recuperating from an ankle wound at an Army hospital at Fort Devens, Mass., he had a brief conversation with and got a hug and kiss from movie actress and director Ida Lupino.
He graduated from City College of New York in 1946 and received a master's degree in zoology from the University of Notre Dame in 1948 and a doctorate in zoology in 1951 from Notre Dame. He immediately went to work at Argonne.
His interests included electromagnetic radiation before he turned to circadian rhythms.
He also investigated the development of language, which he put to use when a stroke in the late 1980s forced him to relearn how to speak.
Two sons preceded him in death, Bill Ehret in 1971 and Hank Ehret in 1969.
In addition to his son John, survivors include his wife of 61 years, Dorothy Ehret of Grayslake; five children, Tom Ehret of Darien, Ill., Peter Ehret of Tucson, Albert Ehret of Chelan, Wash., Julia Buckley of Corona, Calif., and Louise Legler of Phoenix; 14 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.