Is Melatonin Effective for Jet Lag & Insomnia?
The normal sleeping pattern can be defined as sleeping in the darkness of night and waking up in daylight. Scientists have recently found out that there is a connection between the cycle of sleep and awaking (one of the circadian rhythms) and that of darkness and daylight. It has been found that our sleep is regulated depending upon the exposure to light or darkness. A nerve pathway gets stimulated from the retina to hypothalamus in the brain upon exposure to light. In hypothalamus, a specialized center known as sprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) gives out signals to other areas of the brain that regulate body temperature, hormones and other functions that can make us feel sleepy or awake.
The SCN acts like a clock that establishes a regulated pattern of functions that affect the whole body. Upon exposure to the morning light each day, the clock in the SCN starts carrying out functions such as increasing body temperature and secreting stimulatory hormones like cortisol. It also delays the secretion of other hormones like melatonin which is related to sleep onset, for many hours until there is dark.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone which is made by pineal gland. Pineal gland is a pea-sized gland situated just over the middle of the brain. This gland remains inactive during the day and gets activated when the sun goes down and darkness starts stepping in. It is activated by the SCN and produces melatonin which is secreted in the blood. Normally this happens around 9 pm. At this time, the level of melatonin in the blood rises sharply and you start feeling sleepy. This rise in the melatonin level in the blood sustains for about 12 hours, i.e. throughout the night, before the next daylight arrives when it slowly falls back to low by around 9 am. Melatonin levels during daytime are hardly detectable.
How does melatonin act has not been understood yet fully but it is certain to be playing a key role in the regulation of the sleep and wake cycle, and some other circadian rhythms too. It has been found though that melatonin triggers chemical receptors within brain to evoke sleep. Melatonin is being studied as a potential treatment for disorders related to circadian rhythms and may help in decreasing sleep disruptions resulted from jet lag.
In addition to adjusting the SCN clock, bright daylight brings about another effect – it blocks the secretion of melatonin. Therefore, as melatonin comes out only in the dark, and is often called “Dracula hormone”. Even though the pineal gland is stimulated by the clock, it won’t create melatonin unless the environment is dimly lit. Besides sunlight, a sufficiently bright indoor artificial light can also prevent the secretion of melatonin.
Jet lag arises because of flying in a plane and crossing one or multiple time zones which can disturb the above-mentioned sleep and wake cycle of the body. Airplane travel across time zone/s may make it difficult for your body to sleep and stay asleep at night or stay awake in the day.
It is seen that the jet lag is normally greater if you go from west towards east than from east towards west.
Jet lag symptoms may last for a day or many days. There are certain rules about this:
When you fly towards east, the jet lag symptoms last for around two-third of the number of time zones you cross. For example, if you cross three time zones, you may recover after 2 days.
When you fly towards west, the number of days you will take to recover from jet lag will be around half of the number of time zones. E.g. if you cross 4 time zones you will recover in 2 days.
Melatonin as a Medication for Jet Lag
During the period of jet lag, if you take melatonin, it may help your sleep and wake cycle to reset. Some studies have revealed that using melatonin reduces jet lag experienced by people while traveling to both east and west. But all studies don’t support this.
You can take melatonin to repress the symptoms of jet lag though the dosage recommendations vary among melatonin researchers and include:
- Taking melatonin after it’s dark, the day you travel and for a few days after reaching your destination
- Taking melatonin at evening time, a few days before travel in case of flying eastward
You can also do some other things to reduce the jet lag effects. E.g. take rest before the flight and move around in the flight to avoid being confined to crowded spaces for long periods. Also drink plenty of water because the air in planes often tends to be dry. There are also some OTC vitamins and herbal medicines which you can try to reduce jet lag.
Insomnia is a common disorder of sleep that can damage your quality of life. In insomnia, people find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Insomnia can also be characterized by a disturbed sleep like waking up during night or too early in the morning.
Insomnia can come and go, or may last for long.
A temporary insomnia is usually connected to temporary stress. It can go on for some days or some weeks. It generally gets better within a month.
A chronic insomnia is ongoing. It is usually not a disorder in itself but a symptom of another health disorder, like chronic pain or depression. Fortunately chronic insomnia is rarer than the short-term one.
Insomnia can be caused because of many factors. Some of the commonest among them are:
- Stress: Stress can result from a fear about a particular event, like exam, or worry about a particular thing such as school or work can also cause stress and in that case it is ongoing.
- Changes in Surroundings or Sleep Habits: These include changes in the location or situation where you sleep, like light, noise or a different bed. They also include changes in the pattern of sleep e.g. jet lag or a late shift at work.
- Wrong Sleep Habits: These include keep watching TV till late at night in bed or not having a regular sleeping schedule.
- Sometimes a troubled sleep may make the person worried about falling asleep, which worsens the problem.
- Stimulants: These include caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, drugs and certain medications.
- Other Health Problems: These include pain, restless leg syndrome and breathing problems.
- Anxiety, depression and other emotional or mental conditions
- Not exercising regularly
Symptoms of insomnia are varied, like:
- Being unable to fall asleep
- Waking up during night and unable to fall asleep again
- Waking up too early in the morning
- Feeling tired after waking up
- Feeling sleepy, grumpy or anxious and being unable to do anything during day
Melatonin as a Remedy for Insomnia
Melatonin is the only hormone available in the US without prescription, while in the UK it is a prescription-only drug. Melatonin is a natural ingredient of some foods, like fresh tart cherries, banana, tomatoes, walnuts, flaxseeds and more.
Safety of Melatonin
Side Effects of Melatonin
Melatonin has side effects but they go away when you discontinue using the drug. They include:
- Morning grumpiness
- Lower body temperature
- Trivial changes in blood pressure
- Vivid dreams
With all this discussion about melatonin and its use in disorders like insomnia and jet lag, we should now look at some misconceptions many people have about melatonin as a medicine.
Misconception: Melatonin can be taken any time.
Truth: Melatonin is actually a hormone which signals brain that now it’s dark and we should prepare for that. If in such a case, melatonin is taken in daytime, it is more likely to cause adverse effects than doing good, because the body’s clock receives conflicting signals of daytime light and at the same time darkness.
Misconception: Melatonin, being a natural hormone, cannot do any harm.
Truth: Melatonin is a natural hormone, but if taken at a wrong time and in wrong doses can cause serious threat to health. Taking melatonin in daytime has been seen to cause depression (because melatonin has an effect of withdrawing, pulling back and become disoriented, so that the body can get sleep and rest).
Misconception: Only taking melatonin will help me sleep.
Truth: This is half truth in the sense only melatonin can help you sleep if you are suffering from a problem like jet lag. But if you are going through some other sleep disorder, the underlying cause of your problem should be found out and cured along with taking melatonin. Are you abnormally stressed? Or are you depressed? Or have you some other health disorder? If you and your doctor can find this, that will cure your sleep problem in a true sense. Melatonin supplement will help you sleep during this quest till you get cured.
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