If you’ve ever flown across the country or an ocean, you’ve probably experienced jet lag. It’s a frustrating experience. No one wants to feel exhausted all day and then struggle to sleep at night – especially on vacation!
Many people take over-the-counter sleep supplements like melatonin for jet lag. But just because something is available over the counter doesn’t mean it’s safe or effective for everyone.
Here’s what experts have to say.
“Jet lag is when your internal body clock is mismatched with the time zone that you’ve traveled to,” said Dr. Stephanie Stahl sleep medicine physician and assistant professor at Indiana University Health.
“The daily schedule that is extremely important for the physiology of the human body is disrupted,” said Dr. Meredith Warner, orthopedic surgeon and founder of Well Theory. It’s normal for your body to take one full day of recovery for each hour of time difference, she said.
Is it OK to take sleep supplements like melatonin for jet lag?
First, consult your health care provider before taking sleep supplements for jet lag.
If you get the OK to take a sleep aid, consider melatonin. Melatonin is one of the most common ingredients in over-the-counter sleep aids. It is a hormone your body makes when it is time to sleep. Melatonin supplements trick your body into winding down for sleep even if you take it at a time different from your usual bedtime. Well-timed, low doses of melatonin can help combat jet lag, Stahl said.
“Other supplements known to help with the onset and maintenance of sleep include magnesium, GABA and L-threanine,” Warner said.
“[Melatonin] can be safe with short-term use for most people with appropriate dosing,” said Jamie Lee McIntyre, registered dietician and nutrition communications consultant.
However, melatonin is not FDA-regulated. Contaminants or misleading labels can be a concern. McIntyre recommends looking for melatonin supplements with a third-party testing seal, such as USP or NSF. These labels indicate that an outside organization has reviewed and approved the product.
Additional factors must be considered once you’ve purchased a quality melatonin supplement. Sleep supplements can interfere with other medications, so running any sleep aid past your doctor is best. Melatonin is not recommended for children.
If your doctor says melatonin or conventional over-the-counter sleep aids are unsafe for you, McIntyre has a suggestion: Have an evening cup of chamomile tea until your body adjusts to the new time zone. She says research suggests this tea can have a sedative effect.
If you decide to try melatonin for jet lag, pay careful attention to dosage and timing.
Experts generally recommend taking melatonin by mouth 30 minutes before bedtime. Only take it when you are in an environment where it is safe to fall asleep.
Dosage varies depending on the product, individual and how many time zones you’re crossing. Doses between half a milligram to 5 milligrams can be appropriate for combating jet lag, McIntyre said.
“When traveling eastward through five or more time zones, 2-3 mg of melatonin (immediate or delayed release) may be useful when consumed at local bedtime on arrival day and for two to five nights after,” she explains. “Research is less clear on the usefulness of melatonin for westward travel or through fewer than five time zones.”
The best jet lag treatment has nothing to do with supplements or over-the-counter medications.
Here are suggestions from our experts.
- Adjust your schedule immediately. The most effective way to combat jet lag is to create a new schedule that matches your new time zone. Plan meals and bedtime on local time – and stick to it until it feels natural, Warner said.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol intake. “Practice good sleep habits, including avoidance of caffeine within 10 hours of bedtime and avoidance of alcohol,” said Stahl. Both substances interfere with your body’s natural energy rhythms.
- Eat a light dinner. “Avoid heavy meals prior to bedtime, and allow for two to three hours of upright sitting for proper digestion before laying down for sleep,” suggested McIntyre.
- Use light to your advantage. Speed up your body’s time zone adjustment by exposing yourself to sunlight during the day and eliminating light exposure (including phones and TVs) at night.
- Try playing white or brown noise. Research has found that some people fall asleep 38% faster when listening to static-like white noise. McIntyre suggested trying brown noise, which sounds like heavy rain or a shower.
What’s your remedy for jet lag? Share it with us in the comments.