DEAR DOCTOR K:
My wife and I are traveling to Europe in a few weeks, and we’re already dreading the jet lag. Do you think melatonin will help?
Many people find that crossing several time zones makes their internal clocks go haywire. Some small studies have suggested that melatonin can help jet lag if taken a few days before and after travel.
Melatonin is a natural substance released by our brain to help coordinate our circadian (day/night) rhythm. This rhythm is disturbed when we travel across time zones.
Melatonin is more effective in minimizing the effects on sleep of eastward travel. Dietary supplements contain about 3 to 5 milligrams (mg) of melatonin. Sleep experts here at Harvard Medical School recommend the following specific program for eastward travel:
- Take the first dose on the day of travel at about 6 or 7 p.m., home time. Since you may be boarding a plane about then, keep the dose in your pocket, readily available.
- After arriving in Europe, take a dose at bedtime in Europe (about 10 or 11 p.m.) each night, for up to four nights.
Other strategies can also help. For example, try not to sleep until it’s bedtime in the new time zone. If you’ve slept poorly on the overnight flight to Europe and feel you have to sleep, try just taking a 30-minute nap after arriving. That may give you a boost until European bedtime comes.
Get up early in the mornings. This may be difficult the first few days, but should get easier.
Use the sun to your advantage. This really helps me. I tend to sleep poorly on an overnight flight. If the sun is shining where I land, I get out in the sun for several hours, even if all I want to do is crash in my hotel room.
No matter which direction you travel, spend as much time outdoors as possible to let daylight reset your internal clock. Exposure to the sun probably has a more powerful effect on setting your circadian clock than taking melatonin.
It also is helpful to gradually adjust your sleep time for several days prior to traveling — in either direction. Your goal, either way, is to start sleeping at an hour that is closer to the hour you will be going to bed on arrival. So, if you’re traveling east, start going to bed earlier for several nights before you leave. If your normal bedtime is 11 p.m., try going to sleep at 9 or 10 p.m. for several nights.
Similarly, if you’re traveling west, start going to bed later for several nights prior to travel. Here’s an illustration explaining this strategy:
Reset your biological clock
Here’s one way to help reset your biological clock when you travel through time zones. If you’ll be traveling through several time zones, as when flying coast to coast, you can gradually adjust your sleep time. For example, three days before you plan to travel from the West Coast to the East Coast, go to bed half an hour earlier than usual, and get up half an hour earlier the next morning. The next night, go to bed an hour earlier than usual and get up an hour earlier. The day before you travel, make it 90 minutes. By the fourth day—the day of your trip—you’ll find it easier to adjust to your new time zone.
Drink plenty of fluids, but not caffeine or alcohol, throughout your trip. Caffeine and alcohol promote dehydration, which worsens the physical symptoms of jet lag. They can also disturb sleep.
Over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids may help you sleep at night on your trip, but most don’t adjust your circadian rhythm.