First, it’s important to note that while they both have the potential to make you feel sleepy, sleeping pills and melatonin have entirely different mechanisms of action. Sleeping pills, which are available in both over-the-counter and prescription formats, work in a few different ways to support sleep. Many OTC sleep aids utilize specific forms of antihistamines that work like sedatives to make you sleepy. Prescription sleeping pills typically target and activate GABA receptors in the brain for a calming, slow-down effect. Meanwhile, melatonin (a hormone produced by the body in response to darkness) works by cueing the brain that it’s time for sleep. That’s all to say, a sleeping pill can knock you out on contact, while melatonin will more gently “shift your circadian phase, helping you sleep during the nighttime hours of a different time zone,” says Andrew W. Varga, MD, neuroscientist and physician at The Mount Sinai Integrative Sleep Center.
“Melatonin is useful for shifting your circadian phase, helping you sleep during the nighttime hours of a different time zone.” —Andrew W. Varga, MD, neuroscientist at The Mount Sinai Integrative Sleep Center
That key difference plays into how and when you can take melatonin versus a sleeping pill on a plane for the best effect, alongside other factors like your sleep goal, and flight time, length, and direction (more on this below).
As a general precaution, however, Dr. Varga does not recommend taking either melatonin or a sleeping pill for the first time on a plane, given that both may occasionally cause adverse effects in some people. (And it’s best not to find out that you’re one of those people while you’re trapped at 30,000 feet.) Among the list of common side effects for melatonin and sleeping pills are excess drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vivid dreams or nightmares.
Being at high altitude on a plane can also put you more at risk for side effects from a sleeping pill or melatonin if you have another medical condition affected by altitude, says Dr. Varga. “For example, sleep apnea can be worsened by sleep medicines due to their muscle-relaxant effects, and dips in oxygen related to apnea can also be worse on a plane due to the altitude, even in a pressurized cabin,” he says. But otherwise, if you’ve previously taken melatonin or a sleeping pill without side effects, you can feel safe taking it on a plane, too.
Doing so effectively, however, requires some forethought. After all, you don’t want to feel groggier when you arrive than when you took off, sleep right through the landing, or mess up your internal sleep-wake clock to the point where you can’t sleep at night after arriving at your destination. Below, sleep doctors share when and how they recommend taking melatonin or a sleeping pill on a plane to doze responsibly while keeping your circadian rhythm in check.
How to safely and effectively use sleeping pills or melatonin for flights
Because melatonin works by phase-shifting your circadian rhythm (aka signaling to the body that it’s time for sleep even if it isn’t dark out), it only makes sense to take it on a plane “if the flight is happening during a time when you would normally be sleeping in the destination time zone,” says sleep specialist Angela Holliday-Bell, MD. In this way, melatonin can help stave off jet lag by allowing you to transition to the sleep schedule of your target time zone before arriving.
So, flights that happen overnight within the same or similar time zones (long north-south flights) and flights that go east or west through several time zones (so that you’d essentially miss a night of sleep without sleeping on the plane) would qualify. Again, the simplest way to remember it is, if you’re on the plane when it’s nighttime (that is, sleeping time) in your target destination, you can take melatonin. But otherwise, you’d be throwing off your circadian rhythm to do so.
For example, take a flight to Tokyo from New York, where you’re leaving mid-morning (when it’s around 1 or 2 a.m. Tokyo time) and arriving in Tokyo the next day, in the middle of the afternoon local time. In that case, it makes circadian sense to sleep on the plane—and take melatonin, if you need, in order to do so—because you’re flying when folks in Tokyo are asleep, and it will be daytime when you arrive. But if you were flying to London from New York during the daytime, leaving in the morning around 8 a.m., you’d be in the air when it’s mid-afternoon in London—which is not a time when you'd typically sleep. If you were to take melatonin and pass out, your circadian rhythm would be off once you arrived: It’d be around 8 p.m., and you’d have just slept through the afternoon, making it tougher to fall asleep that night.
It’s also best to take melatonin a couple hours before what would normally be your bedtime, in order to give it time to kick in. So, in the Tokyo example, if your usual bedtime is midnight, you’d want to take melatonin a couple hours before boarding, so you’d (hopefully) be sleeping right after takeoff (which is near your bedtime, Tokyo time). Whereas, if you were heading to, say, Athens, and you were leaving at noon New York time (aka 7 p.m. Athens time), you would want to wait a couple hours into the flight to take melatonin, so you aren’t sleeping several hours before when you would’ve been going to bed in Athens.
As for the dosage, it’s best to stick to the typical dose you’ve taken previously (and not to go any higher for the flight). A good reference range is between 0.5 and 3 mg, says Dr. Holliday-Bell. (Though many melatonin supplements are available in dosages as high as 5 mg and beyond, taking too much melatonin elevates the risk of side effects and dependency.)
To reiterate the above, it’s only a good idea to take a sleeping pill on a plane if you’ve taken one before with no side effects and you do not have a medical condition affected by altitude. Beyond these qualifications, the same timing rule for taking melatonin on a plane also applies to a sleeping pill—that is, you only want to take it (and be asleep) during a time when you would normally be sleeping in the destination time zone. But with a sleeping pill, you can take it closer to when you’d like to actually fall asleep.
Different from melatonin, most sleeping medications “are metabolized relatively quickly,” says Dr. Varga, “meaning that increased sleep propensity should start within 20 to 30 minutes of taking it.”
That reality can make it tempting to just pop a sleeping pill in order to pass a few hours of a flight snoozing—but again, you’d be better off only taking one at a time when you would typically be asleep in the place where you’re headed, so as not to throw off your circadian rhythm and worsen your jet lag once you arrive.
Because sleeping pills (especially prescription ones) can have a more potent drowsiness-inducing effect than melatonin, it’s also wise to only take one on a plane if you have at least seven hours remaining of the flight. That said, if you needed to be awoken during that time window after taking a sleeping pill, it would be doable (most sleeping pills are not so potent as to make someone “completely un-arousable,” says Dr. Varga), but you’d certainly feel groggy and foggy. And that could interfere with your functioning, as well as make it unsafe to do things like operate a vehicle, says Dr. Holliday-Bell.
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