Air travel has seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of our daily lives. Besides vacations and family reunions, people have to fly both domestically and overseas for their professional lives as well. However, traveling across different time zones can cause jet lag – a temporary sleep disorder that occurs when one’s biological clock or circadian rhythm struggles to synchronize with the time zone or local time of their destination. To beat jet lag, frequent air travelers take melatonin supplements. But are they safe?
Shashank Bhat (55), a top management member with a tech giant, tells Happiest Health that his sleep is often disrupted when he has to catch early morning flights. He also experiences severe jet lag due to his frequent work-related travels to the US, Australia and the UK. “I vaguely remember the last time I got a good night’s sleep at my home in Bangalore. For an early morning flight, I often skip sleep and end up resting in the lounge or during the flight. I have no choice but to adjust to the changing patterns of the sleep-wake cycle. It is odd at times, especially when I have to attend a meeting immediately after landing in different countries,” says Bhat, adding that he has been taking melatonin supplements for the past two years to overcome jet lag.
Flying east can make jet lag worse
Besides causing daytime drowsiness and temporary insomnia, jet lag can also affect one’s productivity. This happens as the biological clock takes time to adapt to the new time zone. “Our biological clock or circadian rhythm needs to reset or adjust to the newer time zones. This process takes time, and hence people experience jet lag,” says Dr Hirennappa B Udnur, consultant pulmonologist, Manipal Hospital, Bangalore.
However, traveling towards the east can make jet lag worse. Dr Vivek Anand Padegal, director of pulmonary services and sleep medicine, Fortis Hospital, Bangalore explains, “Those traveling eastward face an early sunrise. Hence, one has to sleep and wake up earlier than their usual time. That, along with jet lag, makes it difficult for them to function.” On the contrary, those traveling from east to west face a delayed sunrise, due to which jet lag might not be as severe. It is usually easier to stay awake longer at night than to wake up early.
Melatonin for jet lag
Our circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a set of hormones and environmental cues (sunlight and darkness). Melatonin is one such sleep-inducing hormone that is produced by the pineal gland located in the brain. It helps in the initiation and maintenance of sleep. However, its production is affected when one travels across different time zones.
Melatonin pills are often used by frequent air travelers to overcome jet lag. “Melatonin is safe with very few complications. If an individual is traveling across different time zones, they can take melatonin before sleeping,” says Dr Padegal. “I take melatonin for long-distance flights, like traveling to the USA from India. Pairing supplementation with light therapy [exposure to bright light] can help in effectively overcoming jet lag,” he adds.
Apart from air travelers, ship crews can also experience jet lag. Dr Padegal says he does recommend melatonin to ship crews, as they have different schedules and their sleep cycles change quite often.
Melatonin for jet lag: Dosage and timing are vital
While melatonin is widely regarded as a safe drug for treating jet lag, it can have common side effects like nausea, headaches, vomiting and daytime drowsiness. It’s crucial to take melatonin as per a doctor’s advice, who will prescribe the appropriate dosage for an individual to avoid any possible drug interactions.
“Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone. It should not be consumed at odd times or before driving, as it can cause drowsiness,” explains Dr Padegal. It is a short-term drug and is not effective if consumed over a prolonged period.
Air travelers with breathing difficulties should be cautious
Long-distance flights can be challenging for individuals with breathing disorders, depending on the severity of the condition.
“People with obstructive sleep apnea [OSA] or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] can experience difficulties. The oxygen concentration of ambient air is 21%. However, the FiO2 [fraction of inspired oxygen] in flight cabins is only 15%. Therefore, it is important for individuals with breathing difficulties to get a health clearance from a doctor,” says Dr Udnur.
- Melatonin supplements are used by frequent air travelers to overcome jet lag.
- Experts say those traveling across different time zones can take melatonin before going to sleep. However, it should be taken as per a doctor’s prescription, as the dosage varies depending on the individual.
- People with breathing disorders should get medical clearance from their doctor before air travel.