What is melatonin?

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a natural hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and is only released at night – it's sometimes called the ‘hormone of darkness’. It's controlled by the 24-hour circadian clock and its release tells the brain that it is nighttime. In day-active animals like humans, melatonin ‘opens the sleep gate’ and tells the brain that it’s time to sleep. We usually start to produce melatonin about 2-3 hours before we go to sleep.


 How does melatonin help with jet lag?

How does melatonin help with jet lag?

Approved melatonin pills contain a synthetic version of the hormone but in a much higher dose than we naturally produce. Taking melatonin will do two things: First, it will help shift the timing of the body clock to help you overcome jet lag more quickly. Second, it will help you sleep when you are transitioning between time zones by telling the brain to sleep at a different time than normal. Melatonin is not a sleeping pill, however, and will not help sleep once your jet lag is gone.


Before using melatonin


Melatonin is a relatively safe supplement when used in the short-term, and melatonin side effects are uncommon.


Melatonin safety in the long-term has NOT been determined in randomized, controlled studies. 


You may NOT be able to use melatonin if you have certain medical conditions. Do NOT use melatonin without medical advice.


There are NO data on how melatonin interacts with other drugs.


Do NOT use melatonin if you are pregnant, lactating, have epilepsy or migraines, taking warfarin, or if you have a personal or family history of psychiatric disorders.


AVOID alcohol and tasks requiring a high level of alertness, such as driving or operating machinery, within 8 hours after taking melatonin. 


Try melatonin at home or in a safe environment BEFORE using it on your first trip. Do NOT take melatonin for the first time on the plane.


Do NOT give melatonin to children.

Before using a specific melatonin product, make sure to ask your doctor about its safety, side effects, interactions, and warnings. If you experience side effects after taking melatonin, you must consult your doctor.


 What melatonin to use

What melatonin to use

With a fast release preparation, the dose used is usually 1-3mg when indicated for resetting the clock (slow release formulations are available but they may stay in the system too long and confuse the circadian rhythm). Doses above 0.5mg usually give blood levels of melatonin much higher than the normal physiological night time rise.

Because melatonin is considered a food supplement in the US, the manufacture and sales of melatonin are less well controlled so there is often considerable variation in the quality and actual melatonin dose across products. It’s also often sold combined with other substances, such as Valerian or St John’s Wort. If you choose to buy a food supplement version of melatonin, use a ‘melatonin-only’ product, without additional substances, and buy it from a reputable pharmacy (they often have own label preparations). A pill form (1-3mg, fast-release) is likely to be most reliable rather than melatonin-containing drinks or sprays. There’s no evidence that products high in tryptophan, from which melatonin is synthesized, or melatonin such as cherry juice can help shift the circadian clock.


Where to buy melatonin

In the US, melatonin is considered a food supplement and therefore can be bought at pharmacies and health food stores. In many other countries, melatonin is a prescription medication so you need to consult your physician to get it.


 Use melatonin with the Timeshifter app for eliminating jet lag

Timeshifter jet lag app + melatonin

You don’t have to take melatonin for Timeshifter to help you eliminate jet lag, but if you choose to use it, you can expect to adjust to a new time zone even faster. Timeshifter will tell you when to use melatonin during your trips so you get the maximum benefits. 


Further information:

  • Arendt J. (1994) Melatonin and the Mammalian Pineal Gland. ISBN 0-412-53600-5, Chapman Hall, 2-6 Boundary Row, London.

  • Arendt J. (1996) Melatonin. British Medical Journal, 312: 1242-1243.

  • Arendt J. (1997) Safety of melatonin in long term use(?) Journal of Biological Rhythms, 12: 673-682.

  • Arendt J, Aldhous M, English J, Marks V, Arendt JH, Marks M, Folkard S. (1987) Some effects of jet lag and their alleviation by melatonin. Ergonomics, 30: 1379-1393.

  • Arendt J, Aldhous M, Marks V. (1986) Alleviation of jet-lag by melatonin: preliminary results of controlled double-blind trial. British Medical Journal, 292: 1170.

  • Arendt J, Skene DJ, Middleton B, Lockley SW, Deacon S. (1997) Efficacy of melatonin treatment in jet lag, shift work and blindness. Journal of Biological Rhythms, 12: 604-618.

  • Folkard S, Arendt J, Clark M. (1993) Can melatonin improve shift workers' tolerance of the night shift? Some preliminary findings. Chronobiology International, 10: 315-320.

  • Haimov I, Laudon M, Zisapel N, Souroujon M. Nof D, Shlitner A, Herer P, Tzischinsky 0, Lavie P. (1994) Sleep disorders and melatonin rhythms in elderly people. British Medical Journal, 309: 167.

  • Herxheimer A, Petrie KJ. Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag. Cochrane Database Systematic Review, (2002) Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001520. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001520.