Melatonin is a popular supplement for the sleep-deprived, namely because it carries rather innocent associations. Melatonin is “natural” and “safe” and “herbal”, right?
Wrong. I’ve been arguing with the melatonin prophets for years because I believe the image melatonin has, and what melatonin really is, are vastly different. Like so many things that we trust in, consume or think we understand, the truth may not be what we want to believe.
My caution with melatonin is simple: melatonin is a hormone.
That’s right – a hormone. Like estrogen. Like testosterone. And just like taking estrogen (whether it’s Hormone Replacement Therapy or the Pill) or testosterone therapy, melatonin comes with risks. Frequent melatonin use – especially in the typical dosage of 3-6 milligrams – can trigger a bit of a vicious cycle in the brain. Supplement with melatonin regularly to get to sleep, and your body is going to produce even less, creating even greater need for the hormone. It’s not that you can’t ever take melatonin; but I think it’s important that people understand the facts.
A caveat: While I am generally against using hormones (it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature), I am in favor of using the natural version of the hormone melatonin to “reset” the diurnal clock when traveling across time zones. Because, after all, you got there by fooling Mother Nature in the first place! Humans did not evolve a mechanism to adapt to changing time zones. Jet travel can be some of the most destructive stress you can encounter, especially the older you get.
In fact, a recent article in ScienceNow Daily News reported on the growing concern in the scientific community over the dangers of jet lag. Turns out it’s more serious than we previously realized. Jet lag increases risk of cancer, ulcers, and sleep disorders, as well as weakening the immune system. Now, this isn’t reason to stop traveling; simply be aware of the risks and take some smart precautions (drinking alcohol on the plane: not a good idea).
I travel frequently, and I don’t suffer from jet lag, because I use melatonin judiciously in these instances. I also have a few rules about travel (feel free to crib my notes):
- Once you’ve landed and checked in to your lodgings, immediately get an aerobic workout. This will help stimulate circulation, hormones and serotonin production – it’ll just be that much easier adjusting to the new time zone. Don’t tuck into a glass of wine or take a nap. Spend 30 minutes getting your heart racing instead.
- Eat a small, protein-rich meal that also includes some fiber. But keep it light so your body isn’t further stressed.
- Reset your watch and then… lie to yourself. Don’t think about it; just immediately adapt to the new time zone.
- Of course, the goal is to adjust as soon as possible to your new time zone. If you’re flying overnight or flying to a place where everyone else will have just finished sleeping, by all means, do what you can to nap on the plane or otherwise refresh yourself.
- Drink at least a quart of water your first day there (4 glasses).
- Go to bed when everyone else in your new time zone goes to bed, and take 3-6 milligrams of melatonin an hour before you plan to fall asleep to make that possible.
Here’s the ScienceNow clickativity.