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April 1997 Vol. 12, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Melatonin: A Cure for Jet Lag?

from the April, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Editor:

I had heard a lot about melatonin's ability to relieve jet lag but figured it was just another fad. Nonetheless, I gave it a tr y. After a flight from the U.S. to Singapore, I took two 2-mg tablets for the first four nights and noticed a significant difference in how quickly I adjusted to the time shift. I've traveled across the Pacific many times and normally battle daytime sleepiness for at least four days, sometimes six. But this time, although I was tired on the first day, I was functional, and on the second day I was astonishingly alert. It did not make me sleep through the night, but despite less sleep, I felt fine during the day. I am surprised. I'll do it again.

C. B., Singapore

Dear C. B.:

Humans manufacture their own melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that signals the body when to sleep. For years, savvy travelers have taken an inexpensive synthetic melatonin (available in health-food stores) to reduce or eliminate jet lag. While some people pooh-pooh it, Dr. Josephine Arendt, writing last year in the British Medical Journal, noted that "there is substantial published evidence that melatonin can improve both the subjective and objective symptoms of jet lag."

There are a few dosage theories, but because they've never been thoroughly tested, they remain theories. Dr. Arendt says, "Dose-response studies suggest that for clock-related problems, 5 mg is more efficient than lower doses." A customer-relations representative at Natrol, a manufacturer of melatonin, recommends up to 6 mg. Everyone seems to recommend taking it an hour before bedtime at the new destination, and on subsequent nights if traveling across a lot of time zones. Our editor John Q. takes up to 5 mg. When I travel across several time zones, I tend to be way out of sync for a couple of days, so I take up to 12 mg; however, I'm a believer in the theory that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.

Dr. Arendt notes that evidence shows it can effectively induce sleep even if you're not flying. Dr. Terry Willard, a herbalist with Natrol, says that it helps insomnia in about half the people who try it. Peter Doskoch, writing in Psychology Today, says, "For a good night's sleep, take 0.3 to 9 mg about an hour before bedtime."

While no harmful side effects have yet been discovered (it's not well researched), melatonin interrupts the sleep of some people and makes others drowsy after waking. Russell J. Reiter, Ph.D., a professor of neuroendocrinology, says melatonin shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive; people with bad allergies, mental illness, autoimmune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis), or immune-system cancers (lymphoma or leukemia); and those taking steroids. People taking antidepressants should not take it either. Diving to 120 feet while loaded up on melatonin is a risk that's never been researched -- and probably won't.

Further aids to minimizing jet lag include avoiding alcohol and caffeine and drinking plenty of water. If you're flying eastward at night, avoid meals and try to sleep through as much of the flight as possible. (You might want to take a mild sleeping pill or muscle relaxant, but make sure its effects don't last longer than the flight.) Whichever way you go, reset your watch upon arrival, start eating meals on the new time zone's schedule, and don't go to sleep until bedtime.

Ben Davison

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