Travel: it enriches our lives, opens our eyes and feeds our souls. It can be rejuvenating, exciting, educational, inspiring, and if we’re lucky, life changing. It can also be unpredictable, even uncomfortable. For all of it’s possibilities, one thing is consistently true; actually getting to a destination is daunting and can be hard on our bodies, especially our circadian rhythm and digestion.
Whether on a short flight or a long haul, there is an emphasis on food and drink. As soon as we take off we’re given beverages, snacks, and meals. I used to happily accept the salted nuts, dinner upon takeoff (no matter what time of day), the occasional dessert, breakfast however many hours later, and mindlessly munched on my own snacks in between. Then I came to my senses and stopped eating airline food because let’s be real, it isn’t fresh or organic and who knows where it is sourced from, but I ate plenty of my own food that I brought with me. Eating can be soothing while trapped in a vessel where time doesn’t really exist, we might be feeling anxious, we often feel tired, and usually feel bored. I have certainly self soothed with food and inevitably I always arrive at my destination feeling jet lagged, puffy, bloated and uncfomfortable.
Cut to my recent trip to Africa, which began with a sixteen hour flight from LA to Dubai. Usually I arrive to long haul flights armed with plentiful snacks, but this time I only had some (raw, unsalted) nuts, matcha and a Bulletproof bar. I didn’t have a specific plan to fast; in fact I didn’t have a plan at all. When I looked at the Emirates menu before takeoff I panicked. I wasn’t going to touch any of that. Of course I wasn’t. Why didn’t I bring food. Shit. I stress ate some nuts and decided to take advantage of the situation, embracing it as an opportunity to experiment a little.
While everyone else ate their three course dinners I happily guzzled my sparkling water with lemon. I usually have trouble sleeping on planes but I fell right asleep a couple hours into the flight and woke up a solid seven hours later. I drank more water. I didn’t feel hungry at all. When breakfast was served I ordered tea, and yes, I drank more water. When we landed at 8pm I was not bloated at all, and felt reasonably fine given that we had just flown so far and crossed several time zones. The hunger finally hit me when we were in the comfort of our hotel, at which point I ordered fish and vegetables and broke my fast.
During our trip we went on to fly eleven more times. And every time we flew I stuck to water. Our flight back to the US was more challenging because we flew ten hours from Cape Town to Dubai, followed immediately by the sixteen hour Dubai to Los Angeles flight. The first leg of travel was overnight so it was easy not to eat, although I was barely able to sleep. The second leg was more challenging because at that point we had been awake for the majority of thirty six hours and I didn’t want to actually starve myself. In the forty five minutes between flights I had a banana with raw almond butter and a Bulletproof protein bar, and brought raw nuts, raw dried mango, and an avocado (random) with me on the plane in case I got really hungry. I ended up snacking on a little of each of these throughout and of course drinking copious amounts of water.
Now that you have all the details you never knew you wanted about my in flight eating habits, I can definitively say that I felt much better after the first flight when I fully fasted. This isn’t a new revelation, and scientists have this explanation for the theory:
The most influential cue on the body clock is light, yet scientists have discovered that a second master clock in the brain responds to the time we eat (and don’t eat). A brief bout of self-deprivation effectively puts the clock on hold, and it comes back to life with the reintroduction of food. Scientists believe our bodies suspend their biological clocks when we are hungry as a leftover from the prehistoric ages when hungry people needed to stay awake in order to forage. Their body clocks returned to regular programming once they had obtained the food they needed.
As for the digestive piece, “it’s quite common to have digestive issues in the dry, high-altitude environment in the air. “Studies on flight crew members have illustrated that with the decrease in air pressure, there is an associated slowing of gastric motility and delay of digestion,” says Dr. Rahnama. “By fasting, the gut will be relieved of its duties and the associated symptoms—like gastric reflux and bloating—may be avoided.”
So there you have it! The reasoning is sound but from what I could find, the actual scientific research in humans is minimal. If you find that you feel sluggish and heavy and experience jet lag when you travel, it is worth considering a fast or at least starting small, like replacing airplane food with healthy snacks and making sure you drink a lot of water. If you feel you’re ready to try a full fast I would make sure you have healthy snacks on hand in case you do get hungry or feel like your blood sugar is low. I don’t know if I will continue to practice this on every flight but the experience was definitely enlightening. I’d love to hear your experiences with this! xo