Jet-lag treatment earns praise Melatonin: 'Miracle drug' is touted as an aid in adjusting to different sleep patterns.

February 04, 1996|By Cheryl Blackerby | Cheryl Blackerby,COX NEWS SERVICE

As soon as the 747 took off from New York's Kennedy Airport at 7 p.m., I put two small white tablets under my tongue and settled back in my seat to see what would happen.

I was testing the new cure for jet lag -- melatonin -- a "miracle drug" that made the cover of Newsweek in November and was discussed recently on "Donahue."

At least four recent books have touted the wonders of it, including "The Melatonin Miracle" by Walter Pierpaoli and William Regelson (Simon & Schuster; $21), which came out in August and made it to No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Health food stores and drug stores are doing a brisk business in melatonin, which is sold over the counter.

Melatonin is not a new invention, but a hormone that is in our bodies naturally. The pineal gland in the brain produces melatonin when our eyes register darkness, to tell us it's bedtime.

Research shows that small amounts of melatonin can trick the body into believing it's dark, and can reset the body's clock, putting us to sleep. The "sleep phase" ends with the return of light.

Which means it's the perfect answer to jet lag -- the grogginess and lethargy that hits us when we go to places several time zones away.

Other strengths

But that's just the beginning. In animal studies, researchers have found that melatonin strengthens the immune system, protects cells and might make us live longer. Children produce a lot of melatonin, but as we age, we make much less.

Dr. Pierpaoli, one of the authors of "The Melatonin Miracle," switched the pineal glands of 10 older mice with 10 young mice in one study several years ago, restoring high levels of melatonin to the elders and reducing levels in the young mice. The older mice surpassed their life expectancies by an average of 30 percent. The young mice died in late middle age. Other experiments showed that putting melatonin in drinking water had the same effect.

So, theoretically, not only would I not have jet lag by the time I got off the plane nine hours later, but I would also be younger. This experiment was monumental.

There are two recommended methods to use melatonin for jet lag, and I used both. If you're going east and losing time, you start taking a small amount -- 0.5 milligrams -- a couple of days before the trip at the bedtime of the new time zone.

Because I was going to Finland, seven hours ahead of U.S. East Coast time, I took the melatonin at 4 p.m. (11 p.m. in Helsinki) to reset my body's clock for the new time. That amount is not enough to cause sleep but will get the body "thinking" in the new time.

The second method is to take one milligram for every time zone you've crossed, up to 10 or 12 milligrams once you start the trip, according to Dr. Ray Sahelian, who wrote "Melatonin: Nature's Sleeping Pill." I took 5 milligrams on the plane because the label said not to take more than two tablets, which were 2.5 milligrams each.

This trip would be the ultimate test of the drug, because at my destination, the Arctic Circle, there would be very little light to inhibit production of melatonin -- in other words, no blast of sunlight to reset my body's clock.

There were two empty seats next to me on the plane, so I put the armrests up and made a bed with my coat and pillows.

Within 45 minutes I was asleep and didn't wake up for six hours. Once awake, I felt I had gotten a good night's sleep. At my hotel, I felt tired in the afternoon but not groggy. I went for a long walk in the snow to make sure I'd stay awake.

I took two tablets at bedtime, promptly went to sleep and woke up eight hours later. I took the melatonin the next three nights, and there was still no jet lag.

On the fourth night, I didn't take it, and went to sleep but woke up three hours later. This was what happened the first few nights on a previous trip to Finland. I took the melatonin and slept the rest of the night.

When I came home, I took it the first two nights at bedtime and slept regular hours. The usual routine upon returning home from Europe is to wake up at 4 a.m. and not be able to go back to sleep.

The only side effects were a little fogginess the first 30 minutes after I woke up and bad dreams. The Food and Drug Administration has recorded only four complaints, and those were minor.

There are some people who shouldn't take the drug until more research is done: women who are pregnant, people with severe allergies or autoimmune diseases, people with immune-system cancers and healthy children. High doses of melatonin can act as a contraceptive, so women trying to conceive shouldn't take it.

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