The science behind jet lag

As our family prepares for our annual trip to England, I find myself searching for the best ways to cope with jet lag.

My husband and I have taken regular trips to visit his parents in England for years, but we never worried too much about jet lag because we never had times when we needed to be awake.  We would just sleep when we felt like it until our bodies slowly made the adjustment.

Then, our son was born. The first time we all visited England, we decided to stay on Eastern Standard Time.  And as first-time parents of a newborn, we were (probably overly) concerned about his eating and sleeping schedule. My in-laws obliged us, staying up until midnight to play with the baby and letting us sleep late in the mornings.

This year is a bit different. As our son approaches two years old, he and our in-laws are more interested in fun outings like the zoo, the beach and the local amusement park.  This means that we will all need to adapt to our new time zone in fairly quick order.

So I set out this week to find some coping mechanisms that will really work.  There’s a lot of advice out there – ideas about caffeine, fluid intake and exercise schedules. Researchers have even discovered the causes of jet lag at the molecular level and are using those findings to develop medicine to help people overcome the condition. 

I was able to find two systematic reviews of jet lag treatments – one by the Cochrane Collaboration and one by England’s Guardian newspaper. Both cover a supplement called melatonin, a hormone responsible for regulating your body’s internal clock. It is the only treatment for jet lag that has been studied in clinical trials.

It eight out of ten studies, the melatonin was found to be effective in reducing the symptoms of jet lag. It has also been studied for treatment of sleep disorders in children, but there are lingering questions about its safety, especially in toddlers.

 Since we’re not treating a medical condition in my son, I would prefer not to give him a supplement. Even a small risk of side effects outweighs any potential benefit of lessened jet lag. For this trip, we’ll stick to the general wisdom for coping (which haven’t undergone any scientific testing):

  • Getting as much sunlight as possible in the mornings.
  • Eat at normal mealtimes in our new time zone.
  • Getting plenty of exercise in the mornings and early afternoons.

Wish us luck, and at least a few nights of peaceful sleep while we’re traveling!

–          Sheri Hall


  1. Karl says:

    In case people wonder about potential side effects of melatonin, the Mayo Clinic has some advice:

  2. Karl says:

    Hi Sheri,

    I resonate so much to this post! On the spectrum of people who suffer from jet lag, I am at the extreme end. It is the worst flying east (like from the U. S. to Europe). The first night I can fall asleep (after being up a lot of the previous night on the flight). But the second night, I don’t begin to feel sleepy until about 2 AM. And I am usually a world-class sleeper, so this is unusual. It takes me until the third or fourth night to get into a sleeping pattern. But it also affects my mood, alertness, etc. I have learned when I am giving a talk in Europoe to get there 1 or prefereably two days early. I wonder if melatonin has any known side efects? I might have to give it a try!


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