Why People Take Melatonin for Jet Lag
Melatonin is a hormone and a derivative of the amino acid tryptophan that is produced by the pineal gland in the brain. It plays an important role in the regulation of your sleep cycles (e.g. circadian rhythm), and production increases when the retina of the eye senses darkness. The increased blood levels of melatonin make you feel less alert, and more inclined to sleep.
The Circadian Rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours (National Sleep Foundation)
Because of the natural role of controlling sleep-wake cycles, individuals have been turning to melatonin supplements to induce sleep and help adjust their circadian rhythm to the new timezone. While there is some evidence of melatonin supplementation aiding in the sleep process, it does not address all the compounding issues that cause Jet Lag.
Issues of Jet Lag
“Jet Lag” also known as time zone change syndrome or desynchronosis, occurs when people travel rapidly across time zones or when their sleep is disrupted (eg shift work). It is a physiological response to the disruption of the body’s circadian rhythms as well as dehydration, stress, low oxygen, and immobilization (causing poor circulation and pooling of fluid in the lower extremities).
Jet Lag can occur any time you travel quickly across two or more time zones; traveling eastward is often worse than westward. Although you may not be able to completely prevent jet lag, you can lessen its effects with some simple strategies listed below.
Adjusting to the new time zone and getting high-quality, deep sleep is a primary focus for individuals trying to avoid jet lag. You can start by adjusting the time you go to bed and wake up in the week leading up to your trip; but often that is not feasible. Thus, taking advantage of the long hours on the plane to sleep will help you reset at your destination.
Sleeping on the airplane will go a long way to ensuring you are able to make it through your first day there, and will help you avoid heading to bed in the middle of the day at your new location.
Making sure that you’re staying hydrated is always important, but even more so on a transmeridian long-haul flight. Dehydration is known to make jet lag symptoms more severe. Along this same line, avoiding alcohol as it can worsen the symptoms of jet lag, and contribute to dehydration.
It is important that, once you arrive, you get outside in the natural light. Light exposure is one of the main elements that help regulate your body’s circadian rhythm. Exposure to morning light is best for adjusting to an earlier time zone, while evening light is best for later time zones.
Combining light exposure with exercise can help you adapt even faster. Exercise will allow you to feel more alert, and can improve your sleep quality at the end of the day.
Where Melatonin Falls Short
There is research evidence to support that melatonin supplementation does, in fact, aid in the process of falling asleep. However, supplemental melatonin does not aid in resetting circadian rhythms nor does it address the other compounding factors contributing to jet lag symptoms. The combination of stress, dehydration, immobilization AND poor sleep cause jetlag; and using melatonin supplementation as a sleep aid does not counter these critical variables.
The best-known methods for easing the effects of jetlag begin before you leave with specific interventions on the plane. Specifically, arriving at your flight hydrated with minimal stress and anxiety can help set your body up for less severe symptoms.
Adapt to your new schedule while inflight: change your watch to the destination time, and sleep on the plane if it is nighttime at your destination; or stay awake if it is daytime.
Stay hydrated: drink non caffeinated and nonalcoholic beverages before, during, and after your flight to counter dehydration.
Move! Get up and walk around, do static exercises in your seat, and stretch on the flight. When you land, get out and go for a walk or a bike ride for the natural light and exercise; but avoid heavy exercise near your destination bedtime, as that may delay sleep.
Eat light but sensibly- avoiding heavy meals in the days before and on the day of travel.
Avoid sleep distractions and prescription medications which may induce a hangover effect of sleepiness.
Following these simple tips will help you adjust to your new destination, boots to the ground, running.