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Dubbed as the Dracula of hormones, melatonin is a natural hormone that comes out at night. Your body produces it through the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland that sits atop the center of your brain. This part of the brain is turned off during daylight. But when darkness arrives, it’s switched on and starts releasing more melatonin near bedtime. The Dracula of hormones is signaling you to sleep.
What if catching some zzzs doesn’t happen like clockwork for you? Could you be lacking this sleep-wake cycle regulator? Should you use melatonin for sleep? Only recently, science has discovered the connection between sleeping and waking and daylight and darkness. But sleep disturbances and disorders have plagued us longer. Introducing melatonin in supplement form is a rather newly proposed solution, yet one worth considering.
So there is no short answer to whether you should have it or not. Good thing this guide is here to walk you through a slew of factors. Check them out before making a call.
Melatonin for Sleep: An Overview
With enough production of melatonin, your body is encouraged to sleep. The hormone does not put you to sleep per se. It induces it. For some reason, it can go haywire and become ineffective in doing its job. This can happen due to different causes. Let’s understand how it works, what you’re lacking when you can’t sleep, and when you need to resort to a supplement.
How Does It Work?
Patterns are an inevitable part of human life. One such pattern is the sleep-wake cycle, aka the circadian rhythm. This cycle tells you when to drift off and when to wake up. Typically, snoozing takes about 7 to 9 hours. Then you’re up for about 15 to 17 hours. Your body has its own set of workers to get your gears running on time.
Adenosine is one chemical that accumulates in the blood during the day. Its level increases the longer you’re awake. Once sleep debt accrues, adenosine drives you to take a shuteye and then dips back to low levels once you’re out. Some stimulants like caffeine, however, prevent it from working by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain. This is why coffee is so effective when you’re pulling an all-nighter.
Another natural sleep regulator is melatonin. Usually, the level of this hormone begins to rise at sundown, reaching a peak around 9 p.m. Light and darkness play a part in its production. You’re low on melatonin during the daytime when natural light abounds. Once darkness sets in, it builds up to prop you up for sleep. Artificial light, however, can inhibit its production.
Other causes such as irregular work shifts can also disrupt this pattern. Those who are having trouble sleeping, such as people with insomnia, are also suspected of having an inadequate supply of melatonin. This is where supplementing melatonin for sleep enters.
Synthetically made melatonin can be ingested as a pill. But some versions can be placed in the mouth, inside the cheek or under the tongue, for direct absorption. Taking melatonin this way mostly serves as a short-term solution for cases of insomnia, jet lag, or shift-work disorder. This is to help reset your circadian rhythm or improve your sleep quality.
What Does the Science Say?
While there are positive effects reported with regard to the efficacy of melatonin in certain situations, they come from smaller studies. For instance, it may be safe and effective for those experiencing some types of insomnia in children and adults. But this doesn’t tell us if it can be used the same way to treat other forms of sleep disorders. Whether it’s good for long-term use also remains in question.
Research conducted between 2010 and 2014 showed that melatonin may be better than a placebo in helping people with jet lag. Traveling by air across multiple time zones can cause jet lag. Its symptoms include disrupted sleep, less optimal functioning, and daytime tiredness. Melatonin was found to reduce these symptoms among passengers of eastward and westward flights. However, the sample sizes in the reviews were small.
Another case in which melatonin may be useful involves treating delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. People with this disorder fall asleep two hours or later than traditional bedtime. Hence the name. Here, melatonin should reduce the time needed to fall asleep and promotes timely rest among sufferers. This is applicable to both children and young adults. Professional consultation is strictly advised.
Again, different situations may call for different measures. In the next section, let’s see how melatonin can be used according to your condition.
Melatonin for sleep and other purposes is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. However, you can conduct due diligence using scientific-based evidence of its efficacy. Medical sites like WebMD are a good place to start. In fact, WebMD applies a rating system to help you gauge how effective melatonin is for specific uses.
The description per rating is taken from WebMD’s legend:
“Reputable scientific references generally agree that the product is effective for specific use … and at least two scientifically rigorous studies (involving at least several hundred patients) found the product to be likely effective… and the studies are published in reputable scientific journals.”
- Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder – Those whose bedtime occurs two or more hours later than what’s conventional are said to have this kind of disorder. The purpose of taking melatonin by mouth is to advance the start of sleep in these individuals. Science says melatonin supplements are effective in this regard in children and young adults.
- Non-42-hour sleep-wake disorder – There are studies that support the efficacy of melatonin supplements in promoting better sleep among children and adults who are blind.
“Reputable scientific references suggest that the product might work for specific use … and at least one study (in humans) found that the product might be effective.”
- Primary insomnia – This refers to insomnia that is not caused by medical or environmental factors. Melatonin can be effective in advancing the onset of sleep among people with this condition. However, it only does so by about 12 minutes. It’s more effective in senior adults than in young adults and children. There’s little basis for determining if sleep quality is enhanced by taking melatonin.
- Beta blocker-induced insomnia – Beta-blockers, such as atenolol and propranolol, are drugs prescribed to patients with high blood pressure. These drugs can disturb sleep patterns in said patients by lowering their melatonin levels. To lessen the time for them to fall asleep, they can take a melatonin supplement.
Jet lag – As we said, jet lag may be experienced by people traveling across multiple time zones. It may take the body some time to adjust. If you’re jetlagged, you may feel tired and sleepy throughout the day, less alert, and uncoordinated. Melatonin can possibly reduce these symptoms. What it cannot possibly do, though, is to shorten the time it takes for you to fall asleep.
“Reputable scientific references suggest that the product might not work for specific use… and at least one study (in humans) found that the product might not be effective.”
- Shift-work disorder – Some people take on shifts that overlap with normal sleeping hours. This can lead to them experiencing insomnia and excessive sleepiness. If you tick off these qualities while working a night shift or rotating shifts, you probably have a shift-work disorder. Ingesting melatonin does not seem to improve this condition.
“Reputable scientific references generally agree that the product is not effective for specific use… and at least two scientifically rigorous studies found the product likely to be ineffective… and the studies are published in reputable scientific journals.”
- Depression – There are indications that sleeping problems as a symptom of depression might improve. However, there are no clear results suggesting melatonin can positively affect depression itself. Some even point to symptoms possibly becoming worse. That it can prevent depression is also not supported.
When you’re taking melatonin for sleep, the dosage is an important factor to know about. Intake differs from one person to another. That’s because your body can respond a certain way based on your weight, metabolism, and general health. For safe and wise use, your approach should be “less is more.”
According to John Hopkins Medicine, you should take 1 to 3 milligrams (mg) two hours before bedtime. If you’re timezone hopping and anticipating jetlag, take melatonin two hours before your bedtime at your destination. Start this several day prior to your trip to prep your body.
Alternatively, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 0.2 mg to 5 mg an hour before bedtime per day for adults. You can start with a low dosage to ease the supplement into your system. Gradually increase the dosage until you achieve your desired result. Make sure to take only up to the maximum allowable dosage of 5 mg.
Feeling drowsy or groggy the morning after is a common side effect of taking melatonin supplements. You should follow the direction of taking it one to two hours before bedtime to reduce daytime sleepiness. You can also reduce the dosage if you have eliminated the first possibility.
An allergic reaction can also happen especially to those who have a history of allergic reactions to supplements. Stop taking melatonin at the first sign of an allergic reaction, such as itching or hives. See a medical professional immediately if this occurs.
Other common side effects of melatonin supplements are dizziness, headache, and nausea.
Those who are on medication should consult their doctor before using melatonin. You should be wary of the consequences such as decreased effectiveness of prescription drugs and changing the way they metabolize in your body.
Meanwhile, those who have dementia may end up in a bad mood after taking melatonin.
Further, you should know how melatonin can possibly interact with some drugs which you may be taking. Here’s a list from the Mayo Clinic:
- Anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs, herbs, and supplements – Said drugs, herbs, and supplements can help reduce blood clots. You might increase the risk of bleeding by combining them with melatonin.
- Anticonvulsants – The effects of anticonvulsants might be inhibited by melatonin in neurologically disabled children.
- Blood pressure drugs – Blood pressure might get worse in people taking blood pressure medications.
- CNS depressants – Melatonin might have an additive sedative effect when used alongside these medications.
- Diabetes medications – Exercise caution when you’re on diabetes medication as melatonin might affect sugar levels.
- Contraceptive drugs – Effects and side effects of melatonin might increase with the use of contraceptive drugs.
- Cytochrome P450 1A2 (CYP1A2) and cytochrome P450 2C19 (CPY2C19) substrates – Be careful in combining melatonin with drugs such as diazepam (Valium) and others that are affected by these enzymes.
- Fluvoxamine (Luvox) – As this selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor can increase melatonin levels, you might end up with unwanted excessive drowsiness.
- Immunosuppressants – Melatonin has stimulating effects on immune function, which can interfere with immunosuppressive therapy.
- Seizure threshold lowering drugs – The risk of seizures might increase if you mix melatonin with these drugs.
In light of the side effects mentioned earlier, you might think twice about using melatonin supplements if your day job requires you to be awake and alert. For instance, if you’re a driver, you might be at risk of excessive drowsiness after taking melatonin the evening before.
Pregnant women should be cautious, too. An animal study showed a negative impact on maternal and baby birth weight, as well as baby mortality. Naturally in humans, the ovaries and placenta produce high levels of melatonin in support of pregnancy and delivery. The infant also relies on the mother’s melatonin supply while in the womb and until 9 to 12 weeks after birth. So taking melatonin supplements might affect the baby.
Addressing sleep disorders in children with autism or attention-deficit disorders is possible through melatonin supplements. More studies have to be done to understand how they can affect the development of metabolic, cardiovascular, immune, and reproductive systems in kids.
Like children, melatonin can also be an effective sleep aid for young adults. In choosing a brand, experts recommend sticking with one that offers pharmaceutical-grade products. Such products are said to follow the recommended dose.
Older adults with primary insomnia may benefit the most from melatonin supplements. This is probably because they naturally produce lower levels of melatonin. Again, make sure to not go beyond 5 mg when taking melatonin.
Other Options to Help You Sleep
Whether or not you opt to take melatonin supplements, there are alternative ways to help you reduce the time it takes you to drift off. Here are a few examples:
- Dim the lights before sleeping. Fading light signals the body to produce melatonin. So draw the curtains and dim or turn off the lights to let your body know snooze o’clock is just around the corner.
- Avoid using gadgets in bed. The blue light emitted by your smartphone or tablet can trick the brain into thinking it is not yet sleepytime. So, even if it’s more difficult than it sounds, ban gadget use right before bedtime.
- Get your dose of natural light during the day. Having a healthy dose of daylight can also help regulate your biological clock. Walk outside in the morning or afternoon. Or work near a window where you can catch some natural light.
Take note of the dos and don’ts for when you can’t sleep as discussed in this article.
Melatonin can be an effective sleep aid for specific uses, such as reducing the symptoms of delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, primary insomnia, and jet lag. It can be safe and healthy for children, young adults, and older adults.
However, melatonin can lead to mild to adverse side effects depending on dosage and interactions with other drugs. Knowing when it is all right to take melatonin supplements can help you avoid running into risks and dangers later on.
So if you’ve skipped those sections, make sure to check them out. You have to gather as much information as you can before trying out this sleep aid. Your overall health takes precedence whenever supplements are involved.
Also, here at PhatFusion, we provide you with less intrusive ways to best insomnia and other sleep disorders. For a start, read our article on how to beat wakefulness fast.