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Melatonin's Crucial Role in Preventing Jet Lag

Jet leg occurs when your internal clock is disrupted when you travel across time zones, causing extreme fatigue, insomnia and irritability.

You might think the only way to prevent jet lag is to either stay up late by drinking copious amounts of caffeine to keep up with the new time zone that you're in, or to take frequent naps throughout the day by supplementing with a sleeping aid.

Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland, a tiny gland in your brain. This hormone is mainly in charge of regulating your sleep and wake cycles and can be found throughout your body: in your gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts, as well as produced in your tissues (skin, gut, liver, white blood cells and kidney).

How can melatonin help prevent your jet lag?

Dr. Mike shares the importance of melatonin for your overall health and how it can help prevent jet lag.

RadioMD Presents: Healthy Talk with Dr. Michael Smith | Original Air Date: May 29, 2015
Host: Mike Smith, MD

Living longer and staying healthier. It’s HealthyTalk with Dr. Michael Smith, M.D. Here’s your host, Dr. Mike.

DR. MIKE: We are going to talk about preventing jet lag now. This is a good topic for me because I do travel for Life Extension as the spokesman and senior scientist. I don’t think that I am a frequent flyer. Many, many years ago when I worked for the pharmaceutical companies before I went into natural medicine and I traveled every week. I definitely was a frequent flyer way back then. But here, now, with Life Extension I fly all over the country. Really, maybe once a month – 12 to 14 trips a year. I don’t know if that is frequent or not. I can tell you this – I am affected more and more by jet lag than I ever was before. Maybe I’m just getting older. When I was younger, flying all of the place with the pharmaceutical companies it didn’t really bother me that much. I would get to a new city and we would go out and have good dinners. Now when I travel, I get to the hotel and eat something and I go right to bed. Maybe I’m just getting old. But this is a good topic for me. As a matter of fact, I just came off a trip recently and I really had a hard time getting my energy back for a bit. I thought, let’s look into some of the new stuff out there about jet lag.

Here’s what we know. Most methods for reducing the effects of jet lag are based on two facts; there are two things you have to know before we can really talk about it. Number one, in healthy people circadian rhythms – this is your day-night cycles. Basically, lots of hormones and neurotransmitters are based on day-night cycles . We call it the “circadian rhythm”. The circadian rhythm is ultimately synchronized with daylight. That’s the first thing that you have to understand. Your daytime/nighttime cycling is really determined by when the sun comes up. Number two, the effects of daytime and nighttime on the circadian cycle is mediated by melatonin. Daytime/nighttime cycles called circadian rhythms are really based upon when the sun comes up and they are modulated by the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is in the pineal gland in the brain. It is released in the absence of light. So when the sun sets, melatonin goes up. As dawn breaks and light begins to come in, your body senses this, it kicks in what some doctors call the “circadian pacemaker”. I thought that was kind of cool. Melatonin drops off, cortisol goes off and you wake up. Cortisol plays a role in this, too. Cortisol and melatonin are opposite each other. When the sun goes down melatonin goes up, cortisol drops. When the sun comes up cortisol goes up, melatonin drops. There is a link there.

We do believe that the best way, then, to prevent jet lag is to prepare your circadian rhythm for the change in time zone with bright light therapy and melatonin. By the way, I want to say something about melatonin. This is kind of off the topic, but that’s okay. It’s my show and I can do this. Melatonin is not just for sleep and circadian rhythms. When you hear melatonin most people think – sleep aid. The first thing I want you to know is that melatonin is not really a sleep aid, by the way. Melatonin, although it can put you to sleep, it really promotes healthy sleep stages. There are about five sleep stages and you are supposed to go through these stages two or three times every night. Melatonin controls all that. If you are having trouble falling to sleep, there are better things you can take than melatonin, in my opinion. You might want to take a sleep aid with melatonin so that when you do fall asleep, you can go through these normal cycles. As a matter of fact a lot of these sleep aids knock you out and you don’t go through these cycles. Maybe you sleep but it’s not healthy, reparative, restorative sleep. Melatonin does a lot more than just that. Melatonin is an antioxidant. Melatonin seems to be – again this is a lot of new research – but melatonin may play a role in helping other antioxidants work better like superoxide dismutation, vitamin C and glutathione. Melatonin has a lot of different roles. As a matter of fact, even in cancer treatment, by the way. Probably because of its strong antioxidant properties. There is a lot of interesting research going on with melatonin. It is really about melatonin light in your eyes. If you really want to prevent jet lag you have to focus on light, your eyes and melatonin. We call this chronosense. “Chrono” means time and “sense” means you are sensing it. Chronosense means sensing time. Your body has an ability to know when it’s light, obviously, and when it’s dark – nighttime. Your body knows when it should sleep and when it should wake up. That is all controlled ultimately by light coming into your eyes which then affects melatonin. When light hits your eyes, even when they are closed, the light still gets through, the lids aren’t perfect. Look at a bright light, close. Your eyes you can still see the light. When the sun comes up the light comes into your eyes, it hits the retina. When that happens, melatonin goes down. When the lights are turned off, the retina no longer inhibits the melatonin and the melatonin can go up. So, there’s a connection between light, your eyes and melatonin. That is what gives you chronosense. The sense of time. It is important to maintain that sense of time when you are flying to different time zones. Most of the research with jet lag is looking at light therapy and melatonin. I have known this for a while and I have been flying with Life Extension for eight years and more and more I am feeling the effects of jet lag and I have done none of this stuff. I don’t take melatonin. Normally, I sleep just fine. I’ve never thought about melatonin even though I knew all this. I don’t know what is wrong with me. Maybe I need to start doing this. Let’s talk about minimizing jet lag with melatonin. In a 2003 British jet lag study, researchers published a review of the clinical trials that use bright light with and without melatonin in an effort to re-establish circadian rhythms in a new time zone. They were using melatonin with or without light. Remember light, your eyes and melatonin all play a role here. Here the researchers from Britain took people and sent them out to different time zones. All of them were on melatonin but some were given bright light therapy; some were not given bright light therapy. What they found, pretty straight forward, was that when melatonin – about 2 to 5 milligrams – was given with light therapy, jet lag symptoms reduced significantly. What do I mean by bright light therapy? In some cases, they had people just waking up in the new time zone and the first thing they did was open up the drapes and look right at the sun, with their eyes closed obviously. That is bright light therapy. They actually had some light boxes for some people. You can actually buy these things. You can travel with them. They are not the light boxes we use to treat seasonal affective disorder. They are smaller versions of that, but you can travel with these things. Some people did that. But basically, you wake up and you let light hit your eyes immediately. You take melatonin at bed. When you get to the new time zone, it’s probably best to stay outside for a little bit in the new time zone. Since you are in the new time zone, stick to that new time zone when it comes to bed. You still go to bed at ten o’clock in that new time zone, if ten is the time you go to bed. You get to that new time zone; you adjust to that new time zone – going to bed, waking up. Take about 2 to 5 grams of melatonin before you go to bed and the minute you get up get some real light on your face. Get outside and the effects of jet lag, with just those two things, can be dropped off significantly. Light and melatonin. You can also do something called pre-entertaining this is where you pretend like you are in a new time zone before you actually get to the new time zone. That was shown to be helpful, too. But the best thing that you can do is get to the time zone, go by that new time zone, get some melatonin and wake up and get sunlight on your face and that seems to help. I am going to try that.

This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I’m Dr. Mike. Stay well.