It doesn’t matter if you’re a backpacker or a business traveller, if you cross multiple timezones, jetlag is going to hit you. There are things you can do to try and minimise the effects of jetlag, such as getting enough sleep and exercise before your trip, and altering your sleep schedule ahead of time, but this is easier said than done – especially when most of us are extra busy before a trip! Fortunately, there is a widely available supplement that you can take to help overcome the effects of jetlag: melatonin. In this article we answer questions like what melatonin is, and how to use it to tackle jet lag.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that is produced naturally by the brain, as a signal to the rest of your body that it’s time to power down and go to sleep. Scientists speculate that this adaptation was evolved to optimize the behaviour of organisms with the environmental periodicity associated with the earth’s rotation – in other words, it’s so we sleep when it’s dark and we can’t see anything, and wake up when it’s bright, and we can hunt and gather most effectively. Conversely, in nocturnal animals, melatonin tells them to wake up and get to work. That is to say, melatonin isn’t a direct sleep trigger, rather it’s a darkness indicator.
But if the human body makes it, why are melatonin supplements even a thing?
Melatonin supplements are a thing because, today, we live in a world of technological wonder - with supersonic jets making a comeback, artificial intelligence threatening humanity, and artificial lighting wreaking havoc on our sleep cycle. Thanks to indoor lighting, humans are now perfectly capable of hunting and gathering at night. However, the need for sleep hasn’t gone away, and the biology of sleep hasn’t changed.
Sleep is still a mystery in many ways, but decades of research has shed light (pun intended) on many important points, including the link between lighting and the triggering of melatonin [Duffy and Czeisler].
Does melatonin really work for jetlag, and is it safe?
Melatonin supplements are widely available – you can even get it online from Amazon and they are relatively inexpensive. While it’s freely available in the United States, it’s not available in some other countries. What gives? Do other country’s have higher safety standards than the US?
There is plenty of evidence that melatonin isn’t just safe, but can be an effective treatment for sleep-related issues.
A recent rigorous clinical study has shown that 0.5 mg melatonin administered 1 hour before desired bed time can have a significant beneficial impact on those with diagnosed sleep disorders [Sletten et al.].
But let’s get to the point: does it work for jetlag? Cochrane, the global health evidence initiative, has this to say:
“Melatonin is remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jet lag, and occasional short-term use appears to be safe. It should be recommended to adult travellers flying across five or more time zones, particularly in an easterly direction, and especially if they have experienced jet lag on previous journeys. Travellers crossing 2-4 time zones can also use it if need be.” - [Cochrane: Herxheimer and Petrie]
In short, yes it is safe, and yes it is effective.
A final point of reassurance: in the US, according to NIH data, 3.1million adults and 419 thousand children use melatonin.
So, although some country’s health regulators may want to wait for additional research to be conducted so they can better labelling and efficacy claims, there is plenty of credible evidence that melatonin supplements are safe, and they can also be effective to reduce the impact of jetlag.
Effective use of melatonin for jetlag
The key to effectively using melatonin to combat jetlag is to take the right amount, at the right time. Your product information sheet will contain recommendation around this, but here are some general guidelines for you to consider.
How much melatonin should you take?
If you think taking more melatonin will get you snoozing more quickly, think again. Too much melatonin taken at once can cause unpleasant side effects like headaches and nausea, which can make it even harder to fall asleep.
People commonly make the mistake of assuming that taking higher doses of melatonin will lead to better shut-eye. But the opposite is true: Too much taken at once can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, or irritability, all of which can disrupt your sleep. So talk to your doctor to be sure, or try the lowest dosage available with your product – they will typically say something like “take 1-3 tablets as needed”, so start with 1 and increase if you’re finding it doesn’t have the desired impact. Note that like all oral medications, this needs to be absorbed by your digestive system, so everyone will have slightly different optimum dosage.
When should you take melatonin?
Cochrane recommends that if you are crossing more than 5 timezones in an easterly direction you are an ideal candidate to benefit from melatonin use to prevent or reduce jetlag, though they say simply crossing 2 timezones is a good enough threshold to try some melatonin [Cochrane: Herxheimer and Petrie], especially for folks who have experiences jetlag before.
The general rule of thumb is to take it 20-30 mins before your desired bedtime. But once again, go with the instructions on your product packaging/information sheet.
Should you take melatonin for westward travel?
Some guides suggest that you do not need to take melatonin when flying westward, the rationale being that your goal should be sleeping later rather than earlier, so all you have to do is force yourself to stay awake longer and then it will be easy to crash into bed at the right time because you will be extra tired. For some people this may work, but for others it won’t be so smooth. Sleep isn’t just about tiredness - in fact being too tired could prevent you getting a comfortable sleep as the stress of exhaustion causes your cortisol levels to spike. The bottom line is, jetlag in either direction is to do with disruption of circadian rhythm, and melatonin supplements can help you establish a new rhythm. So even for westward travel, melatonin supplements have a role to play.
There’s also another point of view on this: what if you don’t actually want to adjust to your destination timezone? Some people have to travel west for business, and in those circumstances they may choose to wake up early and go to bed early, so their adjustment when they fly home will be minimal. In this scenario, melatonin supplements can certainly help you drift away to sleep earlier than you usually would, though you should be careful to complement this by avoiding any strenuous or stressful work activities close to your target bedtime.
Should non-frequent travellers get melatonin supplements?
If you think getting melatonin supplements would be a waste for you because you rarely fly long distances, think again. Although melatonin is great to combat jetlag, it can be beneficial for other sleep issues as well.
First of all, we need to acknowledge that there are people dealing with serious sleep disorders which can have major impact on quality of life. Clearly such situations should be diagnosed by your healthcare professional.
“Circadian disruption — and Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder (DSWPD) specifically — is associated with significant morbidity, including depression, poor academic and work performance, and adverse social and economic outcomes.” - [Sletten et al.]
But beyond serious conditions that require professional medical diagnosis, the truth is modern lifestyle is to blame for a lot of friction when it comes to sleep. The medical research community has even gone so far as to acknowledge the phenomenon of social jetlag [Wittmann et al.].
“The fact that many people in our society shift their sleep and activity times several hours between the work week and the weekend (or other free days) is comparable to jetlag.” - [Wittmann et al.]
Actual travel-related jetlag may be practically impossible to avoid or mitigate without melatonin, but social jet lag is clearly a lifestyle choice, so when you’re planning a big weekend it would be advisable to try other techniques to minimise the impact on sleep disruption, such as getting enough rest before the wild weekend. However, if you’re absolutely in need of some sleep help to get back on form, you may be glad you have those leftover melatonin tablets in the medicine drawer.
Here at Intrepid Wellbeing we prefer to source information from high quality, academically rigorous sources. These are the references we used to develop this article:
- Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Effect of Light on Human Circadian Physiology. Sleep Med Clin. 2009 Jun;4(2):165-177optimum.
- Sletten TL, Magee M, Murray JM, Gordon CJ, Lovato N, Kennaway DJ, Gwini SM, Bartlett DJ, Lockley SW, Lack LC, Grunstein RR, Rajaratnam SMW; Delayed Sleep on Melatonin (DelSoM) Study Group. Efficacy of melatonin with behavioural sleep-wake scheduling for delayed sleep-wake phase disorder: A double-blind, randomised clinical trial. PLoS Med. 2018 Jun 18;15(6):e1002587. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002587. eCollection 2018 Jun.
- Herxheimer A, Petrie KJ. Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2002, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001520. DOI: 10.1002⁄14651858.CD001520
- Wilkinson D, Shepherd E, Wallace EM. Melatonin for women in pregnancy for neuroprotection of the fetus. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD010527. DOI: 10.1002⁄14651858.CD010527.pub2
- Wittmann M, Dinich J, Merrow M, Roenneberg T. Social jetlag: misalignment of biological and social time. Chronobiol Int. 2006;23(1-2):497-509.