It Feels Like Everyone Takes Melatonin for Better Sleep—but Should They? Here's What Sleep Experts Say
People turn to all kinds of solutions, products, techniques, and hacks in their endless quest for better sleep—both more sleep and higher quality sleep. One of the most common is taking supplements of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone in the body that helps regulate the circadian rhythm. And in the past decade or so, use of melatonin for sleep has increased dramatically: Research published in JAMA in February 2022 found that by 2018, Americans' consumption of melatonin to improve sleep nearly doubled compared to 10 years earlier. This significant upward trend in melatonin use inevitably raises some questions about its effectiveness, safety, health implications, and more—especially since it isn't currently approved or standardized by the Food and Drug Administration.
So the burning questions remain: Should you really take a melatonin supplement before bed? How much melatonin is too much—and how often is too often? How does this sleep agent even work? We asked a few sleep experts about the pros and cons of this popular sleep supplement.
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How does melatonin work, and why is it important for sleep?
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland of the brain, is hailed as a "natural" sleep aid that helps regulate our circadian rhythm and is "important for maintaining good sleep hygiene and getting enough sleep," says Victoria Glass, MD, medical researcher and physician.
"Melatonin synchronizes our sleep-wake cycle," explains Funke Afolabi-Brown, MD, a board-certified sleep physician. "Its production increases at night to promote sleep and decreases in the presence of light." By creating an association between changes in light and feelings of sleepiness, melatonin helps our bodies understand when it's time to go to bed and when it's time to wake up.
Beyond sleep, Dr. Afolabi-Brown says melatonin is beneficial for other bodily functions including regulating our immune system, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
Why take a melatonin supplement?
If we produce melatonin ourselves, you might be wondering why anyone would feel the need to get more from a supplement. In many cases, however, the additional melatonin boost can help promote sleep onset and reset the sleep-wake cycle. Traveling to a different time zone(s), adjusting to a night shift at work, or struggling with insomnia are all common reasons for popping a melatonin. "Taking supplemental melatonin can help people adjust to jet lag and improve sleep quality in some people with insomnia (having trouble falling and staying asleep)," says Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine. "It has also been shown to relieve anxiety in people before and after surgery."
How much melatonin is safe to take?
Dr. Afolabi-Brown says that our bodies produce very small amounts of melatonin—around the equivalent of 0.3 milligrams—which can vary by age. This poses a stark contrast to some melatonin supplements available over-the-counter, which can come in very high doses of up to 10 milligrams. "This is why it's important to use melatonin with the guidance of your physician, otherwise, you may inadvertently worsen your sleep," she says.
Typical melatonin doses in children usually range from 0.5 milligrams to 3 milligrams, while typical doses in adults are anywhere from 1 milligrams to 6 milligrams.
"You should take melatonin one hour before sleeping," Dr. Glass adds. "Kids and pregnant women should only take melatonin under prescription."
You don't need to take melatonin every single night
Dr. Dimitriu recommends only taking melatonin in short windows. In other words, there is no need to pop one every night like a vitamin.
"As with most sedating medications for sleep, I recommend against use of melatonin beyond two to three months," he says. "[This is also] partly to focus on being able to sleep naturally without the aid of a supplement. I recommend gradual dose reductions and an emphasis on sleep hygiene for anyone looking to reduce the dose."
While melatonin supplements aren't physically addictive, Dr. Dimitriu says they can become "psychologically addictive," making you believe you absolutely cannot fall asleep without it. "It's good to break that pattern from time to time," he says.
Are there any side effects to regular melatonin use?
Melatonin use is generally safe, according to studies, but there are some instances of unpleasant or unwanted side effects to know about.
"Some side effects have been reported, such as nightmares, drowsiness, bedwetting, headaches, dizziness, and nausea," Dr. Afolabi-Brown says. "Also, there are some reports of potential drug interactions with anticoagulants, anticonvulsants, and other blood pressure medications." Again, underlying why it's always wise to discuss melatonin use with a doctor and/or sleep specialist.
Dr. Dimitriu also advises keeping tabs on your mental health if you're taking melatonin supplements. "In some instances, the fatigue from melatonin can make people feel depressed the next day, and this is worth keeping an eye on as well."
What to look for in a safe melatonin supplement
In addition to consulting with your doctor before starting a melatonin supplement, Dr. Glass suggests buying melatonin from trustworthy brands that follow quality measures. However, it's important to keep in mind that melatonin is not FDA-regulated, and therefore is marketed as a dietary supplement. "Even if the label says 'natural,' 'organic,' or 'purified,' be cautious, as they may still contain impurities," Dr. Afolabi-Brown says.
People considering melatonin should look for products with certifications from organizations like U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), or NSF International. Dr. Afolabi-Brown also warns against taking melatonin with other supplements, which can increase toxicity. "This may affect the dose of the melatonin you are getting," she says. "Make sure you start with as low a dose as possible and increase gradually until you get the desired effect."
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