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Spark It or Scrap It: Does Melatonin Help with Jet Lag?

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
Jet lag is no joke! Also known as desynchronosis, it's a travel-induced condition that occurs when we travel long distances in a short amount of time (typically on a plane, hence the name). If you've ever flown into a different time zone and wound up feeling tired, irritable, achy or just a little off your game, you were most likely experiencing jet lag.
Although jet lag will eventually wear off as your internal body clock adjusts to the new time zone, you might be wondering whether you can accelerate the process—particularly if you need to be sharp for a business trip or want to enjoy a family vacation without sleeping the day away or staying up all night.
Resetting Your Internal Clock?
Many people believe that taking melatonin before travel helps to nip jet lag in the bud by resetting the body's circadian rhythms. Every night when it gets dark, the brain produces this natural hormone as a signal to the body that it's time to start winding down toward sleep. Could taking a melatonin supplement save you from suffering through a couple of crabby days (and serve as a safe alternative to taking habit-forming prescription sleeping medications)?
Science suggests that's a strong possibility. In a group of 10 studies of travelers who were crossing five or more time zones, nine of the studies found that taking melatonin before bedtime at the travel destination resulted in fewer or less severe jet lag symptoms when compared to those who didn't take melatonin. The doses varied from .5 to 5 milligrams, with the larger doses causing a deeper, more restful sleep. According to the study reviewers, melatonin is indeed an effective way to prevent or reduce the effects of jet lag.
In his Bulletproof Radio podcast, sleep researcher Daniel Pardi explains that melatonin is not the same thing as a sleeping pill. Rather than causing you to become sleepy, it tells the body that it's time for sleep. "Melatonin is more of a timing hormone, so it tells the body what time of day it is, [rather than] a sleep induction hormone," Pardi says. Three to five days before travel, he recommends taking ½ milligram of melatonin at the time when it will be getting dark at your destination, so your body won't have to adjust as much when you get there.
The Mayo Clinic notes that the timing of melatonin should be based on the direction you're flying. If you're traveling east, you should take the supplement in the evening at the destination location to adjust to the later time. If you're flying west, you should take it in the morning to reset your body's clock to an earlier time.
Take with Caution
Even though science backs melatonin as a jet-lag helper, as with any medication, you should be cautious when taking this sleep remedy. For some people, melatonin can have short-term side effects, including dizziness, disorientation, daytime drowsiness, vivid dreams and blood pressure changes. More research is needed to determine the safety and long-term effects of regular use. There is a possibility that melatonin could have an adverse effect on those who have epilepsy or are taking blood thinners such as coumadin (warfarin). As always, consult with your doctor before starting any medications or supplements.
Additional natural remedies for jet lag include exercising regularly, getting restful sleep before traveling, drinking plenty of water, avoiding caffeine and alcohol and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Have you ever used melatonin (or another remedy) to treat jet lag? What were your results? Share your jet lag tips in the comments!

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