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From the "guess who flew a long-haul yesterday and is up at 5 AM" department:

In various studies, melatonin is variously claimed to work or not work as a jet lag remedy. Does it actually work?

A good answer will point to scientific research that both shows a statistically meaningful effect (or lack thereof) and explains why other studies are wrong (for example, I gather timing is important).

  • 2
    Like many pharmaceuticals I think effectiveness varies from person to person. I have not tried it, but amongst acquaintances that have, about a third said it made no difference, the rest thought it helped. – user13044 Jan 15 '16 at 4:46
  • There is no way to judge effectiveness until you try it but I know a long haul pilot that swears by it. – Karlson Jan 15 '16 at 5:32
  • @GayotFow Do you mean FRA? FFM is a little airport in Minnesota, and only one hour difference from New York... – Michael Hampton Jan 15 '16 at 5:33
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    @MichaelHampton, yes, I'm using the city code for Frankfurt, not the airport code. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankfurt – Gayot Fow Jan 15 '16 at 5:38
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    I would be cautious about interpreting recent scientific literature too faithfully, as though one individual study or paper might prove or disprove everything. The fact that a paper carefully explains why everyone else is wrong merely shows that the matter remains an open question in the scientific community [or else it would be totally unnecessary to publish the paper]. The literature should be seen as an active debate between participants, not as a summary of the whole community's shared position. – Calchas Jan 15 '16 at 14:18
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+300

After a quick look on PubMed, I found a meta-study on the effects of melatonin in various contexts, published in Nutrition Journal (it's open access, so the article is freely accessible without any kind of academic subscription). It makes a "weak recommendation in favor of melatonin use for rebalancing the sleep-wake cycle in people with jet lag."

Here are the meta-study's results concerning jet lag (emphasis mine):

Eight [37–44] RCTs with 972 total participants characterized melatonin use for counteracting jet lag. Almost all of the studies were of high (+) quality [37, 39–44], with the exception of one poor (−) quality study [38], which favored neither melatonin nor control, despite a large sample size (n = 339). Of the seven high (+) quality studies, one [40] favored neither melatonin nor control. The remaining six [37, 39, 41–44] RCTs favored melatonin, including two [42, 43] large studies (n = 320 [44] and n = 160 [41]) and one [39] which noted a limitation that melatonin increased tiredness the next morning. Melatonin appears to be relatively safe based on the six [38, 39, 41–44] studies that reported adverse events, citing occasional, but not serious adverse events and interactions. Based on the high quality and favorable results reported, the [subject matter experts] concluded that in a jet lagged population, further research may have an impact on the confidence in the estimate of the effect, and as such, provide a weak recommendation in favor of melatonin use for rebalancing the sleep-wake cycle in people with jet lag.

Source:

Costello, R. B., Lentino, C. V., Boyd, C. C., O’Connell, M. L., Crawford, C. C., Sprengel, M. L., & Deuster, P. A. (2014). The effectiveness of melatonin for promoting healthy sleep: a rapid evidence assessment of the literature. Nutrition Journal, 13, 106. http://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-13-106

  • Downvoter: if you explain your motivation, I can improve my answer accordingly. Thanks! – davidvc Jan 19 '16 at 22:49
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I do not have a link to a scientific research to prove this, but as a crew member, in the airline crews community, Melatonin is one of the most used remedies to overcome jetlagging problem we face every week as a part of our job as we need to fix the jetlag problem after every flight to be able to operate the next assignment which might be less than a day from the current one to a totally different side of the world in a totally different timezone.

Compared to other sleep aid remedies, Melatonin does not cause that headache/laziness after waking up. I actually know some crew members who take it an hour or two before their assigned crew rest during long flights. They wake up 2-4 hours later and continue their duties with no problems.

Of course this does not mean some people wouldn't react differently, I personally dislike it for no medical reason even though I have tried it a few times and it did work ok. I guess I dislike it because in my job I face this problem a lot and I do not want to get used to it so later when I do not have I will not be able to fix the jetlag. I do not think this applies to you.

Melatonin and FAA

Furthermore, FAA has approved Melatonin for pilots without wait time after use, unlike Tylenol PM and other Over-the-counter sleeping pills.

It's approved for people without sleeping disorders, which basically means it's approved for temporary cases like jetlags. FAA does not approve any medicine with no restrictions or ground times unless it's really safe for people who operate heavy machines, such as pilots.

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