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Will Melatonin Help Travelers with Jet Lag?

Humans, like most other animals, have daily rhythms. When these are disrupted by shift work or jet lag, people may feel out of sorts, fatigued or even vulnerable to illness. Are there ways to get sleep back on track?

Can You Use Melatonin for Jet Lag?

Q. I would like some information on using melatonin as a sleeping aid. Will it work for people traveling long distances? Are there any side effects I should know about? I am traveling to Europe this summer and I’m concerned about jet lag.

A. Melatonin has been used for the jet lag that can occur when a person travels over several time zones (Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, Jan-Mar. 2008).  Occasionally people taking melatonin will develop a skin reaction (“fixed drug eruption”). This should be a signal not to take it again. People on oral anticoagulants and those with epilepsy should take melatonin only under their doctors’ supervision (BMJ Clinical Evidence, April 29, 2014).

Melatonin seems to be otherwise safe for short-term use, such as for jet lag (Clinical Drug Investigation, March 2016).  Some people may report dizziness, nausea, headache or sleepiness.

Melatonin for Jet Lag, Not for Everyday Insomnia:

Longer-term use of melatonin hasn’t been well studied, and there may be additional side effects. As a result, we don’t recommend melatonin as a sleep aid every night.

Q. I take zolpidem for insomnia. It helps me fall asleep but not stay asleep, and it gives me a dry mouth.

My doctor suggested I try melatonin instead to prolong the time I stay asleep. Does that sound reasonable?

A. The studies on melatonin are mixed. A recent double-blind French study found no benefit (BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, June 22, 2010). It appears to be more useful for jet lag (Current Treatment Options in Neurology, Sept., 2010).

We are sending you our Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep for more information on using melatonin, magnesium and light against insomnia, as well as details on drugs like zolpidem, Sonata and Rozerem.

The FDA approved an old drug, doxepin, in a new low-dose long-acting formulation to help people stay asleep. Initial reports are favorable (Expert Opinion on Pharmacotherapeutics, July 2009). You and your doctor may wish to discuss this option, brand-named Silenor, but be forewarned: the drug may be expensive. Side effects may include drowsiness, dizziness, stuffy nose and nausea.

Reader Finds Magnesium Helps Travel Sleep Woes:

Q. You wrote recently about people who have trouble with regularity as well as jet lag when they are traveling. Here’s my solution. Taking magnesium citrate capsules at bedtime helps me sleep in a new bed and move my bowels in the morning. Magnesium also helps prevent muscle cramping after an active day.

A. Thank you for sharing your multi-purpose supplement. Magnesium has laxative properties, and getting the dose right may require some trial and error.

A recent review of clinical trials found that many people reported magnesium improved sleep (Cureus, April 29, 2024). In addition, readers report that magnesium supplements may sometimes alleviate restless legs. You can learn more about this in our eGuide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep. This online resource is available under the Health eGuides tab at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Rawji A et al, "Examining the effects of supplemental magnesium on self-reported anxiety and sleep quality: A systematic review." Cureus, April 29, 2024. DOI: 10.7759/cureus.59317
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