Traveling across time zones can seem like literal time travel. At some point during trip planning, you’ve probably considered ‘losing time’ or ‘gaining time’. If a plane crossed a time zone or two flying a few hundred miles, it could land just 30 minutes after departure. But our internal clocks adjust slowly and we suffer temporary periods of jet lag.
What is Jet Lag?
Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder that causes sleep and wakefulness to be out of sync. It occurs because our bodies’ biological clocks sync with our original time zone. This continues even after we’ve landed in a new time zone. Jet lag becomes more pronounced as the number of time zones crossed and speed of travel increases.
Common symptoms of jet lag include:
- Daytime Fatigue
- General feeling of being unwell
- Difficulty staying alert
- Gastrointestinal problems
Jet lag symptoms and symptom intensity vary among individuals. For example, older individuals are more likely to have a longer jet lag recovery time.
Symptoms can also vary depending on the direction of travel. Eastbound travelers may have more difficulty falling asleep and waking up. But westbound travelers may experience evening drowsiness and much-too-early rising.
While jet lag might sometimes come in handy as an exotic excuse for feeling sluggish at work, symptoms can be a nuisance. They can affect your travel itinerary, a major family gathering, or a post-vacation transition. Jet lag can become a bigger problem if you travel often, especially across many time zones.
If you travel for business, jet lag may interfere with performance in meetings and other responsibilities.
If you travel for fun, valuable time may be wasted trying to recover from the flight over. Less time spent catching up on sleep means more time to seeing unexpected and amazing sights, like Cat Island in Japan!
A little jet lag is unavoidable, so it’s good to be aware of different ways to lessen the effects. In recent years, research has found that supplementing our natural hormone melatonin can help.
What is Melatonin and how is it involved in sleepiness?
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland, located in the center of our brains. It works with the hypothalamus to regulate our hunger, thirst, sex drives and the biological clock. The pineal gland’s biggest contribution is the secretion of melatonin, which controls sleepiness and wakefulness.
In natural light the pineal gland is inactive. But, when the sun goes down, the pineal gland is activated. This triggers the production of melatonin. As melatonin levels increase, we feel more and more sleepy and make our way to our beds. Melatonin levels stay elevated through the night and a little into the next morning.
Melatonin is also used as a supplement to treat sleep disorders like insomnia.
Using Melatonin to Lessen Effects of Jet Lag
Melatonin is not a sleeping pill. It is a way to try to help our bodies transition to the new time zone. When using melatonin for jet lag, here are some things to remember:
Be conscious of dosage. As with most supplements, melatonin dosage is not regulated by the FDA. Use the smallest dosage you need. Smaller doses, around 0.5mg, are just as effective in reducing jet lag symptoms. Most commercially sold pills have 20-50 times the recommended amount of melatonin.
Be conscious of time. Melatonin should not be taken during the day. Remember the function of melatonin. It provides more of a signal to the brain that it is time to sleep rather than being a sleep inducer in itself. If taken during the day, the brain can receive mixed signals and may disrupt nighttime sleep.
Be conscious of bedtime. Take melatonin at least 20-30 minutes before sleep. For eastbound travelers, you may take melatonin en route, 30 minutes before your target bedtime. For westbound travelers, you don’t need to worry about taking melatonin en route.
Be conscious of other activities. Melatonin will help, but it isn’t the only thing you can do. Take extra steps to adjust to the new time zone. Try to eat meals at the local times. Coordinate sleep with the local bedtime, and try to maximize sleep in the first few nights. Stay hydrated and keep yourself active, even though you may feel tired and sluggish. Expose yourself to light at the appropriate times to help your pineal gland produce its own melatonin!
Words of Caution When Using Melatonin
Consult with your healthcare provider before using melatonin. The hormone is not recommended for pregnant women, or those with certain health issues. Choose synthetic melatonin supplements over animal-derived ones, which may have contaminants. Melatonin is only recommended for use up to two months. Be sure that you do not combine melatonin with any other sedatives, including alcohol.
Melatonin is a good option for lessening the often annoying effects of jet lag. Though not a cure, it can help get you back on a regular sleep schedule in the new time zone. Using melatonin in combination with hydration and exercise will help you be ready for your next big adventure!
To learn more about what you can do to prepare for your upcoming travels, see our travel medicine and travel vaccinations portals.
Travel consultations are another key part of preparation. Schedule your’s today by calling or booking online now.
Written for Passport Health by Adrienne St. Clair