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A Cure for Jet Lag at Last?

A non-prescription pill can help you readjust to a different time zone

Recent reports have suggested that travelers can avoid jet lag altogether by taking melatonin, a non-prescription medication. We consulted with Dr. Richard Dawood, author of Traveler's Health: How to Stay Healthy All Over the World (Random House, 1994), and a contributing editor to Condé Nast Traveler magazine.

What is melatonin and how does it work?

The substance melatonin is actually a natural hormone that all humans carry. In recent years scientists have come to a clearer understanding of how this substance is a crucial regulator of the human body clock. The hormone is released into the bloodstream according to a daily cycle that is determined by your body clock as it is influenced by darkness. During the day, melatonin secretion is suppressed by light; at nightfall, the pineal gland begins to secrete melatonin into the bloodstream.

Jet travel through different time zones interferes with this natural process because the body is left releasing melatonin on its old schedule. The body clock takes anywhere from 1 to 12 days to adjust, depending on the number of time zones a person has traveled. (One time zone generally produces one day of jet lag.)

When should one take melatonin?

Studies have shown and scientists now believe that a supplemental dose of melatonin helps to bring body functions into sync with the day/night rhythm of the new time zone. Timing of the dosage is critical to its success, however. In trials, the best results occurred when subjects took the pill 30 to 90 minutes before bedtime on the day of the arrival and each day of travel thereafter as needed. In other words, travelers who are taking an overnight flight should not take the pill until the evening of the day they arrive.

Where does one buy melatonin?

Melatonin is widely available in a synthetic form that can be purchased as a nutritional supplement at health food stores, but there is no mention of jet lag relief on the bottle. The reason: Food supplements are not subjected to FDA approval as long as there are no claims regarding health effects advertised on the bottle. Melatonin can be ordered from Ecological Formulas, Concord, Calif., for $12.95 plus $1.50 for shipping for 60 capsules, 800-888-4585.

Are there any side effects?

Synthetic melatonin has very few known side effects, apart from the fact that it has a mild contraceptive effect on some women. Travelers who have allergies to other drugs or are taking other medications should consult their physicians before trying the pill, as should anyone who has any kind of special concern about it.

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Updated on August 13, 1996