Traveling With Insomnia: Don’t Let Jet Lag Spoil the Trip!

Do your summer plans include eastbound, transatlantic travel? If so, take precautions to avoid jet lag—the sleepy, sluggish, headachy feeling and insomnia that can seriously curtail your enjoyment of the first few days.

Here’s advice on how to prevent severe jet lag and hit the ground ready for action.

Managing light exposure and use of melatonin can curb travel-related insomnia & jet lagDo your summer plans include eastbound, transatlantic travel? If so, take precautions to avoid jet lag—the sleepy, sluggish, headachy feeling and insomnia that can seriously curtail your enjoyment of the first few days.

Here’s advice on how to prevent severe jet lag and hit the ground ready for action.

Why Jet Lag Occurs

Body processes occur in a 24-hour cycle tuned to daylight and darkness in the time zone where you live. Eastbound travel over multiple zones is a challenge. To adapt to time in the new zone, your body clock has to advance by several hours. For many people, achieving this phase advance is harder than the delay that occurs with westward travel.

Symptoms of jet lag are more pronounced in some people than in others. But the more time zones crossed, the more severe the symptoms usually are. Jet lag symptoms also seem to grow worse with age. And although I have no hard evidence, I think people with insomnia, who have to be careful about scheduling their sleep anyway, may have more trouble adjusting to changes in distant time zones. I know I do.

Exposure to Light: Get It Right

Your biggest help or hindrance to adjusting to the new time will be the sun. To calculate whether to step right out into the sunlight when you deplane or wear dark glasses during the first few hours of the trip, consider these things:

  • Time of arrival at your destination
  • Time difference between where you live and where you’re going
  • Time you normally get up in the morning

Your habitual rise time matters because of what it implies about daily changes in your core body temperature. Your temperature reaches a low point about 2 hours before you normally get up. Light exposure after your normal temperature low is going to advance your sleep cycle, which is what you want if you’re traveling east. Light exposure before that normal temperature low is going to delay your sleep cycle, making it even harder to adjust to time in a distant eastward zone.

Two Examples

Let’s say you live in the eastern time zone of the U.S., which is 5 hours behind London time. You book a night flight, leaving at 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and arriving in London at 11 a.m. British Summer Time (BST). Let’s say you typically get up 6:30 a.m., so your body temperature low would fall around 4:30 a.m. Your arrival time—11 a.m. BST, which is 6 a.m. EDT—occurs after your normal temperature low. Immediate exposure to sunlight upon landing will help adjust your body clock to British Summer Time.

But let’s say you book an earlier flight, leaving at 8 p.m. EDT and arriving at 8 a.m. BST—which is 3 a.m. EDT. This flight would get you into Heathrow before your normal body temperature low of 4:30 a.m. Immediate exposure to daylight upon arrival will push your sleep–wake cycle even further out of sync with the new time than it would otherwise be. This will make your jet lag worse.

If your flight arrives before your core body temperature low, keep plane shades drawn and wear dark glasses until you’re past the time of your normal temperature low. Only then is it going to work to your advantage to expose yourself fully to daylight.

Melatonin Supplements Can Help

Taking a melatonin supplement (sold over the counter in the U.S.) is another jet lag remedy, especially for travel across 5 or more time zones. Your body itself produces melatonin starting a few hours before your normal bedtime in physiological levels of about 0.3 mg. According to a 2015 review in Current Sports Medicine Reports, both low (0.5 mg) and high (3 to 5 mg) doses of supplemental melatonin—taken 1 to 4 hours before the desired bedtime at your destination—can advance the sleep cycle, which should help to prevent jet lag symptoms associated with eastbound travel.

Higher doses may put you to sleep sooner. They may also result in a “hangover” the next day. Melatonin has not been found to have other side effects in healthy human beings. But it is not recommended for people with epilepsy or those taking warfarin.

Comfort During Your Trip

No diet has been scientifically proven to reduce jet lag. Caffeinated beverages can of course perk you up when you’re flagging, but if you want to avoid some of the stomach upset associated with travel, remember in general to (a) stay well hydrated with nonalcoholic, noncaffeinated beverages on the plane and (b) eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Anecdotal evidence coming out of Harvard suggests that fasting immediately prior to and during a flight, and then eating at the soonest mealtime after landing, may reduce symptoms of jet lag.

With that, I’ll wish you bon voyage and plenty of restorative sleep to power you through your trip!

Sleep and Health Benefits of Melatonin

As a treatment for chronic insomnia, melatonin supplements disappoint. Internal secretion of melatonin, the hormone of darkness, begins to rise some two hours before you fall asleep. Adding to it with a melatonin supplement is often redundant.

But there’s increasing evidence that melatonin supplementation is effective for some sleep problems and may also help to treat and/or avert serious health conditions. Here’s a summary of the benefits.

Melatonin ineffective for insomnia but effective for other sleep problemsAs a treatment for chronic insomnia, melatonin supplements disappoint. Internal secretion of melatonin, the hormone of darkness, begins to rise some two hours before you fall asleep. Adding to it with a melatonin supplement is often redundant.

But there’s increasing evidence that melatonin supplementation is effective for some sleep problems and may also help to treat and/or avert serious health conditions. Here’s a summary of the benefits.

Shifting the Timing of Sleep

Supplementary melatonin can be used as a chronobiotic—an agent that brings about a phase adjustment of the body clock. It can shift the timing (but not the duration) of your sleep. So it’s an effective therapeutic in at least two situations:

  1. As a jet lag remedy: Eastward travel across several time zones is difficult. Your body clock has to shift forward several hours until sleep syncs up with darkness in the new time zone. A melatonin tablet taken before a late afternoon or early evening departure (together with reduced light exposure) may help to initiate this phase advance and serve as a jet lag remedy. From day 1 you’ll fall asleep earlier and wake up earlier, starting out on the right foot.
  2. As a maintenance therapy for night owls: If you come alive in the evening and can’t get to sleep till 2 or 3 a.m., chances are your body clock runs late. Instead of completing a daily period every 24 hours, a daily period for you may be closer to 25 hours and even longer. The medical diagnosis for this problem is delayed sleep phase disorder, or DSPD. People with DSPD have a tough time getting up for early morning classes and work. The solution is twofold: bright light exposure in the morning and a daily melatonin supplement taken around dinnertime. (For details see this blog post on DSPD.) Recently, melatonin was found to be quite effective in helping adolescent night owls fall asleep earlier so they could rise ‘n’ shine in time for early morning classes.

Correcting a Melatonin Deficiency

Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland. It helps to create the relatively strong biological rhythms that put you to sleep and keep you sleeping through the night. But melatonin rhythms can weaken with age. The following may be involved:

  • degeneration of neurons in the body clock
  • deterioration of neurons connected to the pineal gland
  • calcification of the pineal gland

All of these factors are associated with melatonin deficiency and will make it harder to fall and stay asleep.

How can you know if you’re deficient in melatonin? An easy way is to test for the main melatonin metabolite in a urine sample collected during the first void of the morning. Testing for melatonin in the saliva and the blood is more involved. Home test kits are available, but you’re more certain to get accurate results from tests ordered by a doctor.

Older adults deficient in melatonin may find their sleep improves when they take a daily melatonin supplement. Timed-release melatonin is now available over the counter in the United States. Particularly if your problem is sleep maintenance insomnia (you wake up several times at night), a timed-release supplement will probably be more effective than immediate-release tablets, which exit the system fairly quickly.

Other Benefits of Melatonin Supplementation

Melatonin may have other health-protective effects. It’s been found to act as a powerful antioxidant in laboratory tests. In a review paper published last year, Lionel H. Opie and Sandrine Lecour cite evidence that melatonin may be effective in helping:

  • lower hypertension
  • reduce damage to body tissue after a heart attack
  • protect against, and reduce cell death following, strokes
  • prevent the adverse health effects of obesity
  • treat type 2 diabetes

Weaker evidence suggests that melatonin may help combat some cancers, including prostate and breast cancer.

If you’re a garden-variety insomniac like me, you may not think much of melatonin. But don’t you have to love it a little bit for all the things it can do?

If you’ve tried melatonin for sleep or some other reason, how did it work?

Avoiding Jet Lag: A Tip for Eastbound Travelers

The first few days in Paris can be miserable as your body clock tries to sync up with local time.

To lessen the effects of jet lag, it’s important to get daylight working in your favor, which is not as simple as many in-flight magazines make it sound.

paris-e1367232068702The approach of summer calls up thoughts of travel to distant lands, but the first few days in Paris can be miserable as your body clock tries to sync up with local time. To lessen the effects of jet lag, it’s important to get daylight working in your favor, which is not as simple as many in-flight magazines make it sound.

Eastbound travelers often get this advice: go out in the sunlight immediately upon arrival. In some cases, this will work to your advantage, but in others, it will make your jet lag worse. It all depends on when the exposure to light in the new time zone occurs in relation to your body temperature. Here’s how it works.

Your body temperature is lowest from one to three hours before you normally get up. So if you get up at 7 a.m., your body temperature bottoms out around 5. This temperature minimum is a critical meridian when it comes to determining the effect light will have on your sleep. The simple rule to remember is this: exposure to bright light soon after your temperature minimum will help you fall asleep sooner at night. Exposure to bright light in the hours leading up to the temperature minimum is going to delay your sleep cycle, making it harder to get to sleep.

Taking an Overnight Flight to Europe

Let’s say you live in the eastern part of the U.S. and you decide to take an overnight flight to Paris, arriving at 8 a.m. To get in sync with local time, your body clock will need to shift forward six hours so you’re ready to go to sleep six hours sooner.

Yet if you heed the advice offered by in-flight magazines and spend the first few hours of your trip outdoors in the sun, your body clock will shift in the wrong direction. At the time of your 8 a.m. arrival, your body thinks it’s 2 a.m.—well before your temperature minimum. Rather than helping you fall asleep sooner that first night in Paris, exposure to morning sunlight is going to delay your sleep cycle further, making it harder yet to adjust to life in the Latin Quarter.

So what to do if, after an eastbound flight, you arrive at your destination before your body temperature reaches its low point? If spending the first few hours of your trip indoors in low lighting is unappealing (and why wouldn’t it be? We’re talking Montmartre and the Luxembourg Gardens, for Pete’s sake!), then definitely wear dark glasses for your maiden stroll down the Champs-Elysées.

On the other hand, if your arrival time falls after your body temperature reaches its nadir, immediate exposure to sunlight is the best way to lessen jet leg and start your trip on the right foot.

Melatonin: It’s All About Timing

Most insomniacs I’ve met dismiss melatonin supplements as useless, and with good reason. If you follow directions and take the melatonin an hour before bedtime, it’s little more than a sugar pill.

But taking a melatonin supplement several hours before bedtime may give you better results.

melatonin taken early in the evening more effective than if taken at bedtimeMost insomniacs I’ve met dismiss melatonin supplements as useless, and with good reason. If you follow directions and take the melatonin an hour before bedtime, it’s little more than a sugar pill.

But taking a melatonin supplement several hours before bedtime may give you better results.

Last night I had a chance to test this out. I was flying back to Ann Arbor from California, which meant I was losing 3 hours in my day. Normally I have a hard time shrinking my day by just one hour, as occurs when daylight savings time begins in the spring. I go around feeling logy and sleep-deprived for a couple days. Eastward travel across multiple time zones is even harder. Getting adjusted without sleeping pills is practically impossible!

But yesterday instead of waiting until bedtime to take a sleeping pill, I took melatonin at dinnertime while I was still on the plane. I felt alert through the rest of the flight. Then I drove home, unpacked, and read the Sunday paper.

It was around 11 p.m. that I started feeling sleepy. Forty-five minutes later I was down for the count and slept through the night until 5:30, my normal wake-up time. And this morning I feel good.

How Melatonin Works

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland. Secretion typically starts a few hours before your normal bedtime and ends about the time you wake up. In most cases, adding to your body’s natural melatonin by taking a melatonin supplement at bedtime is redundant. Your body has no use for it then.

To fall asleep earlier than you’d normally be ready for sleep, you’ve got to take the melatonin well before your natural melatonin cycle begins. Clinical trials with 3 mg. of melatonin have shown that taking a tablet 7 hours before your established bedtime will advance the timing of your sleep the greatest amount.

In my case, since I’d been going to bed in California around 10 p.m. PST, I took the melatonin yesterday at 3 p.m. PST (6 p.m. EST). And last night I fell asleep more than an hour earlier than I would have otherwise.

Melatonin won’t help you sleep longer, and it won’t necessarily improve the quality of your sleep. But it may well help you get to sleep sooner if you take it late in the afternoon or early in the evening. Timing seems to be the key.