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August 15th, 2011
08:06 AM ET

Can melatonin prevent jet lag?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Question asked by Ken from Palm Springs, California:

I'm about to travel to the other side of the world for a week and have to work the day after I get back. I've heard melatonin can help prevent jet lag when I return and would rather take that than medicine. What else can I do?

Expert answer:

Thanks for your question. Traveling across the world and turning your biological clock essentially upside down can definitely cause problems with sleep, both while you are away and when you return.

Melatonin is a hormone found in the body that is also available in synthetic form as a supplement that may help stimulate sleep. As with medications, there may be side effects when taking supplements.

For melatonin, these can include nausea, headaches, dizziness, confusion and nightmares. Also, supplements may interact with any medications you may be taking. Before your trip, your doctor can advise whether melatonin is a good option for you and if so, the appropriate amount to take and when to take it (usually about an hour before the desired sleep time and either upon your return, during your trip, or both).

Some nonmedical options to try include staying hydrated, exercising or being active during the time you are supposed to be awake, and getting enough overall sleep before, during and after travel if possible.

Using eyeshades or room darkening curtains or blinds and a white noise machine may help you sleep better when you want to. Light therapy (such as from exposure to the sun or another bright light) may also help get you back on track.

Some people find that either increasing or avoiding certain foods (such as eating more protein to stay awake or more carbohydrates when trying to sleep) can help them recover more quickly from jet lag.

Readers, if you have any other tips, please feel free to comment below. Thanks!

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soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Derouin

    This is one of the worst 'expert' answers ever. The only critical thought out part of the answer in regards to the actual question is: "may help stimulate sleep". Why 'may'? What evidence/studies are there for and against melatonin's efficacy in preventing jet lag? Please elaborate! The expert spent more space on non-medication ways of alleviating jet lag!

    August 15, 2011 at 08:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • katie

      Melatonin doesn't work for everyone. For example, it helps me sleep very well, but it has the opposite effect on my husband and my mother, keeping them awake half the night. So it's entireley appropriate to claim that it "may help stimulate sleep."

      August 15, 2011 at 09:08 | Report abuse |
    • Dingus

      I agree. This is a horrible answer. The average doctor doesn't know squat about Melatonin.

      August 15, 2011 at 21:51 | Report abuse |
    • dz`

      I agree! What a pointless article.

      August 16, 2011 at 04:09 | Report abuse |
  2. Dave

    I am a frequent traveler to Asia (I'm in China right now) and I have found that while melatonin doesn't prevent jet lag, it does seem to shorten the effect. I'm not sure if this is true, but I have heard that since melatonin is made by your body (and presumably released during sleep), taking it before bedtime helps "reset" your body's biological clock and prompts it to release natural melatonin at the new bedtime, thus shortening the effect of jet lag. When I started taking it during travel, I didn't notice any difference in recovery. But when I increased the dose from around 400 micrograms to 3 grams, I definitely noticed a shortening effect. Now, rather than taking 5-6 days to adjust to the 12 hour time difference, I'm usually good by the 2nd or 3rd day. Overall, I would say it works well for me, but I still wouldn't count on being 100% on your first day in the new time zone.
    Hope this helps!

    August 15, 2011 at 08:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • charls

      Do you mean 3 milligrams rather than 3 grams? 400 micrograms is .4 milligrams or .4 mg.

      August 15, 2011 at 17:00 | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      oops! 3mg, not 3 grams...

      August 15, 2011 at 19:41 | Report abuse |
    • Joey

      a quick way to get over Jet Lag is to take a bath using a cup of baking soda and one cup of epsom salt. She also seggust taking a few supplements before and after flying including: Echinacea and Andrographis. You can ask her a question if you wish on her website at: Wholebodysolutions.orgSince the seminar in Orland, I did 3,000 miles in driving my car in one week after which I flew to Turkey and drove around the country. I did the Andrographis and it seemed to benefit me a lot. I also had a nice full body massage when I got back. Good Luck!

      April 8, 2012 at 05:32 | Report abuse |
  3. sardukar

    So Dr Shu basically said ask your doctor and read the pamphlet inside the box with the side effect. What she missed is : Adults and kids over 12 should take 1 tabled daily at bed time. and in case of accidental overdose contact your local poison control center at 1-800-..see I can do it..I am an expert.

    August 15, 2011 at 09:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Just me

      FYI, since people in the US are so quick to sue over medical advise, physicians pretty much have to water down their advise, make it as non-specific as possible, follow published guidelines when writing. Don't blame them, it's the frivolous malpractice law suits that are to blame.

      August 15, 2011 at 15:45 | Report abuse |
    • sarah

      Actual dosing of melatonin is 1-12mg before bedtime. I usually find melatonin in 3mg tablets. Less is sometimes more for some people. Side effects are drowsiness which usually subsides if you take melatonin every day (you might experience it for the first few days after you start melatonin). In my experience if the over the counter melatonin – the stuff you buy at costco, sams, walgreens, etc. doesn't work for you – you can try to get melatonin made by a compounding pharmacy – meaning they make it at the pharmacy and sell it. The melatonin made by compounding pharmacies is more pure than other forms of melatonin and they do work much better than the other stuff you buy from non compounding pharmacies. When my mother and mother-in-law switched from melatonin they bought at costco to melatonin from the local compounding pharmacy they both noticed they slept much better.

      August 15, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse |
  4. Melissa

    I read about this little trick a long time ago, though have yet to try it - I've only used the melatonin when flying to Asia, and it's worked beautifully. Basically, the idea of this other trick is that if you fast for 12-16 hours before the scheduled breakfast time of your destination, you'll reset your biological clock. Unfortunately, not eating for 12-16 hours can be a real bummer.

    http://www.wisebread.com/how-to-naturally-reset-your-sleep-cycle-overnight

    August 15, 2011 at 09:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ron

      I have been known to get jet lag something fierce, but when traveling from the USA to Bhutan last year, I combined a small dosage of melatonin with the method found at the following link:

      http://antijetlagdiet.com/

      The day after arriving in Bhutan (11 hour time change), I was on the ground running...actually hiking at 11,000 feet, and feeling pretty good. I was very pleasantly very surprised.

      August 15, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse |
  5. jamie james

    my autistic son is 5 yrs old and takes melatonin because he doesnt sleep.. well it works ok when he hasnt had it in a week, but when he takes it everynight it doesnt work..and he takes 15-20 miligams .. so if your only taking it for jet lag.. it should work just fine..

    August 15, 2011 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rick

      Oh great! If it works for your autistic son only over short periods of time, then it must work the same way for everybody else as well.

      August 15, 2011 at 20:14 | Report abuse |
  6. Tina

    I was having issues with insomnia and it did not work, it actually made me more alert/anxious and the next day I even got an aura/migraine when I hadn't had one of those in a year! It may work well for some but everyone is designed differently so it makes sense to think that it won't work for everyone.

    August 15, 2011 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Fuyuko

    Melatonin helps me sleep but not *stay* asleep, which is a drag,.

    August 15, 2011 at 11:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sarah

      If melatonin doesn't help you stay alseep you need to find an extended release melatonin. If melatonin helps you sleep, the extended release will help you stay alseep.

      August 15, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
  8. Donny

    The best Remedy: Hendricks Gin on the rocks with a twist of lime.

    August 15, 2011 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Maryland

    Melatonin may be effective for some travellers, but here is what really worked for me: When travelling from the East Coast to England a few years ago, I tried getting up an hour earlier each day for a week prior to departure. By the time we left, I was able to get a reasonable amount of rest on the plane, and was already operating on GMT when we arrived. It still took a day or two to fully adjust, but I was much better off than many of my travelling companions.

    August 15, 2011 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. George B

    For me, melatonin was a great way to get a good night's sleep. I used to lay awake for an hour or two every evening before I could fall asleep. Taking 3 mg of melatonin a half hour before bedtime had a profound effect – I'd start yawning and get heavy-eyed and fall asleep the moment my head hit the pillow. I'd wake up eight hours later feeling sharp and well rested. I used melatonin every night for nearly a decade and for the first time in my life had great sleep. Not everyone has the same response to melatonin but for my body chemistry it is highly effective.

    Unfortunately there was a downside. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania have linked postural hypotension to regular melatonin use. Some of the people studied would have significant blood pressure drops when they stood up. In my case, often when I stood still my blood pressure would drop and I'd feel as if I were about to faint. As long as I kept moving I was fine but if I was just standing still I'd get weak and fuzzy.

    Fortunately when I stopped taking melatonin after a decade of use there was no 'bounce back' effect where I had problems getting to sleep. Interestingly I kept the same sleep pattern I had when taking melatonin – I fell asleep quickly in the evening and slept through the night. Using melatonin seems to have 'retrained' my sleep patterns and for that I'm very pleased...

    August 15, 2011 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Gene D

    If you're only going cross-country, not much trouble. Try to arrange your business late in the day on the east coast or early on the west. If you're going to Europe or the Pac Rim and you're just going for a one or two hour sales meeting, not much trouble, the adrenalin will get you through it. If you have a harder job (all day meetings), it takes more preparation. Use Xanax, Sonata or Lunesta by night and Modafinil by day (if it doesn't wire you up too tight). Talk to your doctor and try it before the trip. Avoid sunlight as much as possible while traveling and the day before. Try to get there a day early. Wake at dawn, take a vigorous walk in the sunlight, and spend as much daytime in sunlight as possible. Do not go to sleep during the first day! You probably won't need pills after the second day. BTW, it is more difficult to reset your eating schedule than your waking schedule. If you can avoid banquet dinners, having a huge breakfast and light dinner will help. Try to avoid mid-afternoon meetings. That's when it hits you the worst. Melatonin is too weak to be useful. Fundamentally, big time jumps are hard. Not even airline pilots or flight attendants get used to it. The return trip is worse than the out-bound. You're fatigued, almost used to the new time zone, so coming home is the two-punch of a 1-2 punch sequence. Good luck & travel safe.

    August 15, 2011 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Paul Dommel

    I take Melatonin during international travel and it does help - a lot - with a couple of caveats. I must be able to fall asleep within 30 minutes of taking it. Let yourself sleep when it makes you sleepy. If I stay awake after taking it, I believe it prevents me from falling asleep. So – on an international flight, take it when you want to fall asleep. When you land, take it when you want to fall asleep. If you are not ready to sleep when it makes you sleepy - you're not going to sleep - ever.

    August 15, 2011 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Bill

    Xanax + Noise Canceling Headphones + Medication music ... works every-time on the long plane trips.

    August 15, 2011 at 21:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. AQ

    I take melatonin at home when I have insomnia (the 3mg version). When I travel distances honestly, the best thing that works for me is as soon as you board the plane, no matter where you are, set you watch for the time zone of your destination. It's a mental thing but it seems to work for me anyway. That said, I don't keep a regular sleeping schedule anyway so my body isn't that used to a set clock as it were.

    August 15, 2011 at 23:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. klm

    The advice our family has always found best is to sleep when flying east, and to NOT sleep when flying west. You'll have a shortened night going east, but you're still sleeping 'on schedule.' In both cases, resist the urge to even nap at your destination, so that you can go to bed at the new time.
    Unfortunately for me, I CAN"T sleep on a plane for anything. Nothing has ever worked. But the more experience you have flying, the easier the adjustment gets.

    August 16, 2011 at 00:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. John R

    "For melatonin, these (side effects) can include nausea, headaches, dizziness, confusion and nightmares"

    Geez louise. I've worked rotating shifts for 25 years. Melatonin does have some impact, but from the article, you'd think it's on the verge of becoming a controlled substance. It sounds like the lawyers have vetted it before 'release to the public'. I know with 7 billion people in the world, there are obviously going to be side effects that are rare. But I honestly have to wonder at times about how such data is collected. Most people in any so-called control group suffer any of those 'symptoms' in their day to day life. Most of us eat powdered food from the center of the grocery store, sleep 6 hours a night, and commute an hour in either direction. I really, seriously, as a person who looked for supplements to help sleep, have to wonder about the side effects listed. I think two glasses of Tang every day would do worse.

    August 16, 2011 at 02:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. dz`

    I don't think there are any short cuts. You have to let your body adjust. You can't expect to exchange AM for PM and not have a serious reaction from your body. Sleeping aids will help you sleep but expecting them to give your internal clock a 180 is a little out of their scope I would think.

    I travel from Beijing to the east coast of the US 4-5 times per year and I have tried everything. No matter what, I'm a zombie for about 4 or 5 days (it's usually worse when traveling back to the US.. but I've heard the opposite of others). I will say that being dehydrated makes it extra brutal. The only thing I can do to fight jet lag is not allow myself to take a nap before 8pm. If I let myself nap then it adds on an extra day or two to the recovery.

    August 16, 2011 at 04:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Tom

    I never have tried melatonin so can't speak to it, mostly because of side effect concerns. I believe the most important things to help reset you quickly are light at the right time, hydration, and exercise. Here's what works for my wife and me whenever we go to Europe or Asia, and we generally are 100% after one or two days no matter how many time zones – 1) set your watch to the destination time 2 days before travel. Start to get a mindset around the new time. I don't know why but this seems to matter quite a bit. 2) If going east, start going to bed as early as possible and dim lights and shades by late afternoon. If going west, try to stay up later and seek light into the evening. One of those light boxes works great for suppressing your natural melatonin into the evening if going to go west. 3) The day before travel drink 8 liters of water throughout the day. Really. 4) Workout the day before travel – add 2 liters of water for the workout. In other words get WELL HYDRATED in preparation. And don't drink very much or any alcohol the day before and day of travel.

    After you arrive resist any urges to take a nap during the day. Fight through it and go to bed at the normal time at the destination. Spend time outside during the day without sunglasses and let your eyes take in the brightness. Take a brisk walk and keep hydrated. You'll switch around fast.

    August 16, 2011 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Bill

    Melatonin taken at the correct time of day can certainly help. Also important as others stated in their comments is bright light exposure as well as avoiding bright light at the correct time for the time shift of your trip. In addition going to sleep at the optimal time for your new time zone based on your flight connections and normal sleep patterns as well as meal sizes and types of food plus caffeine at the correct time can help you adjust rapidly to your destination. You can learn more about how these major influences on your body clock work plus other travel hints and how to get the correct timing for all these influences for your trip at StopJetLag.com.

    August 16, 2011 at 21:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Pete

    Melatonin secretion is a circadian rhythm. At your normal bedtime, there's ample to quiet the wake systems and sleep is promoted. When traveling out of your time zone, bedtime and circadian rhythms are out of synch. That's the best time to take melatonin–when you need to sleep but your physiology isn't producing it. That coupled with strategic light exposure and light avoidance can quickly reestablish sleep patterns in another part of the world. All other tips are good as well–hydration, exercise, etc.

    August 17, 2011 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. suplementos

    I do believe all the ideas you've presented on your post. They're very convincing and will definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for newbies. May you please prolong them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

    July 17, 2012 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply

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