The following content should not be used as medical advice or as a recommendation for any specific supplement or medication. It is important to consult your health care provider prior to starting a new medication or altering your current treatment.
Thanks to modern air travel, a journey that once took months now takes hours. However, traveling across more than two time zones can lead to jet lag, a condition that can make it difficult to wake up and fall asleep at appropriate times. While jet lag eventually subsides on its own, melatonin supplements may help some travelers adjust more quickly.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that the body produces when it’s time to sleep, and it’s also available as a dietary supplement. We discuss how melatonin works and how to use it to combat jet lag, along with other strategies for reestablishing your sleep-wake cycle in a new time zone.
How Can Melatonin Reduce Jet Lag?
Melatonin supplements may ease the symptoms of jet lag in some situations by signaling the body that it’s time to sleep.
Every evening, the brain releases melatonin as the sun sets, which helps people to feel drowsy and ready for sleep. Typically, the body’s melatonin levels peak overnight and then begin to fall in the early hours of the morning. This natural ebb and flow of melatonin is part of the circadian rhythms that govern the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle.
Tips for Taking Melatonin for Jet Lag
Taking melatonin in the evening can help when traveling to a new time zone that requires you to go to bed and get up earlier than your body is used to. Experts suggest that melatonin may be most helpful for people who travel up to seven time zones east or more than 12 time zones west.
Travelers interested in using melatonin for jet lag for the first time should check with a doctor before traveling. Consider a rapid-release melatonin supplement, as it may be more effective than a slow-release formulation.
Take melatonin at the desired bedtime the night you arrive at your destination. Three milligrams of melatonin works for most people, though some individuals require as little as 0.5 milligrams or as much as 10 milligrams.
Melatonin can be used for up to five nights to help with jet lag symptoms.
Does Melatonin Always Help with Jet Lag?
While melatonin can be helpful for jet lag caused by certain travel scenarios, experts don’t recommend using melatonin supplements in all situations that involve crossing time zones.
Trips Lasting Fewer Than Three Days
Short trips don’t allow enough time to adjust to a new time zone. It’s generally better to forgo melatonin and maintain your normal sleep schedule to the extent possible. This may help minimize jet lag.
Westward Travel Across Fewer Than 12 Time Zones
If you travel west across fewer than 12 time zones, your new bedtime will feel later than usual, and melatonin won’t be necessary. Typically, this will be an easier adjustment for your body than eastward travel. Consider delaying your bedtime by about two and a half hours per day to adjust to local time.
Eastward Travel Across More Than Seven Time Zones
If you travel more than seven time zones to the east, it may be easier to delay bedtime for a few days rather than forcing yourself to go to bed eight or more hours early. Because you will likely be tired at bedtime, you should not need melatonin.
Does Melatonin Have Side Effects?
As with other supplements, melatonin can produce noticeable side effects, some of which are similar to the symptoms of jet lag. The side effects of melatonin use are usually mild and may include:
- Sleepiness during the day
- Stomach cramps
- Intense dreams and nightmares
In general, melatonin is considered safe for short-term use with a few precautions. It can interact with other medications, such as blood thinners or medications that prevent blood clotting, so talk to a doctor if you take other supplements or medications. Also, be sure to take the correct dose of melatonin based on your age and weight. Alcohol should be avoided while using melatonin. It’s also important to consult with a doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have a chronic medical condition.
Additional Tips to Prevent Jet Lag
Jet lag is common in people who travel long distances. Fortunately, there are steps people can take to ease symptoms and help the body adjust to a new time zone, with or without melatonin.
Consider putting together a plan for how to manage jet lag during all phases of travel: as you prepare for your trip, during travel, and after arrival.
Preparing to Travel
Before you leave, try to set yourself up for success while traveling.
- Plan Your Itinerary: If you’re traveling for an important occasion, book your flights so you arrive early and have at least a day to get used to the new time zone before any important events.
- Practice Healthy Habits: In the days leading up to your trip, eat well, exercise, and make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
- Modify Your Bedtime: If it works with your schedule, try adjusting your bedtime several nights before your trip. For eastbound flights, go to bed a little earlier. For westbound flights, go to bed a little later.
Once on board the plane, make sure to set your watch and other electronics to the time zone at your destination. You may also try to minimize the effects of jet lag by:
- Staying hydrated
- Avoiding too much alcohol or caffeine, both of which can interfere with sleep
- Aligning the times you sleep in flight with the sleep schedule you’ll have at your destination
Adjusting After You Arrive
There are several steps you can take to accelerate the transition to a new time zone once you arrive at your destination.
- Get Plenty of Exposure to Sunlight: Bright, natural light is one of the most powerful ways you can retrain your circadian rhythm. Sun exposure helps you avoid producing melatonin during the daytime. It can also help to avoid light close to bedtime to help prepare your body for sleep.
- Keep up a Regular Exercise Routine: Exercising during the day can help ensure that you’re ready to sleep at bedtime. It can also boost your mood, helping you overcome the irritability that sometimes accompanies jet lag.
- Use Caffeine and Naps to Alleviate Jet Lag Symptoms: As you attempt to establish a new sleep schedule, you can use caffeine and brief naps to limit daytime sleepiness, especially early in the day. These measures are ways to temporarily manage jet lag symptoms until your circadian rhythms sync up with your new time zone.
Ask the Sleep Doctor
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