Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002:(2):CD001520. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001520.


Background: : Jet-lag commonly affects air travellers who cross several time zones. It results from the body's internal rhythms being out of step with the day-night cycle at the destination. Melatonin is a pineal hormone that plays a central part in regulating bodily rhythms and has been used as a drug to re-align them with the outside world.

Objectives: : To assess the effectiveness of oral melatonin taken in different dosage regimens for alleviating jet-lag after air travel across several time zones.

Search strategy: : We searched the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register, MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsychLit and Science Citation Index electronically, and the journals 'Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine' and 'Sleep' by hand. We searched citation lists of relevant studies for other relevant trials. We asked principal authors of relevant studies to tell us about unpublished trials. Reports of adverse events linked to melatonin use outside randomised trials were searched for systematically in 'Side Effects of Drugs' (SED) and SED Annuals, 'Reactions Weekly', MEDLINE, and the adverse drug reactions databases of the WHO Uppsala Monitoring Centre (UMC) and the US Food & Drug Administration.

Selection criteria: : Randomised trials in airline passengers, airline staff or military personnel given oral melatonin, compared with placebo or other medication. Outcome measures should consist of subjective rating of jet-lag or related components, such as subjective wellbeing, daytime tiredness, onset and quality of sleep, psychological functioning, duration of return to normal, or indicators of circadian rhythms.

Data collection and analysis: : Ten trials met the inclusion criteria. All compared melatonin with placebo; one in addition compared it with a hypnotic, zolpidem. Nine of the trials were of adequate quality to contribute to the assessment, one had a design fault and could not be used in the assessment. Reports of adverse events outside trials were found through MEDLINE, 'Reactions Weekly', and in the WHO UMC database.

Main results: : Nine of the ten trials found that melatonin, taken close to the target bedtime at the destination (10pm to midnight), decreased jet-lag from flights crossing five or more time zones. Daily doses of melatonin between 0.5 and 5mg are similarly effective, except that people fall asleep faster and sleep better after 5mg than 0.5mg. Doses above 5mg appear to be no more effective. The relative ineffectiveness of 2mg slow-release melatonin suggests that a short-lived higher peak concentration of melatonin works better. Based on the review, the number needed to treat (NNT) is 2. The benefit is likely to be greater the more time zones are crossed, and less for westward flights. The timing of the melatonin dose is important: if it is taken at the wrong time, early in the day, it is liable to cause sleepiness and delay adaptation to local time. The incidence of other side effects is low. Case reports suggest that people with epilepsy, and patients taking warfarin may come to harm from melatonin.

Reviewer's conclusions: : Melatonin is remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jet-lag, and occasional short-term use appears to be safe. It should be recommended to adult travellers flying across five or more time zones, particularly in an easterly direction, and especially if they have experienced jet-lag on previous journeys. Travellers crossing 2-4 time zones can also use it if need be. The pharmacology and toxicology of melatonin needs systematic study, and routine pharmaceutical quality control of melatonin products must be established. The effects of melatonin in people with epilepsy, and a possible interaction with warfarin, need investigation.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Jet Lag Syndrome / drug therapy*
  • Melatonin / therapeutic use*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Antioxidants
  • Melatonin