Your relationship with sleep is, well, complicated. From purposefully prolonging it with revenge bedtime procrastination, to sabotaging it by bringing screens into bed for work, it’s a wonder you sleep at all. But you’re not alone in your sleep struggles—especially after the last year—as it’s all your mom, work wife, and the only person you see every day, your mail carrier, can talk about.

The pandemic’s anxiety-riddled highs and stuck-at-home lows haven’t helped, either. And you’ve tried it all: soothing lavender baths, breathing exercises, and white noise machines, but nothing seems to help.

So, is a lack of sleep really that serious? If so, is it time to give melatonin a try? But what is melatonin, anyway? Is melatonin safe to take regularly? What are the common melatonin side effects? And what’s the right dose of melatonin for the average person to take? Start slowly counting your breaths in and out while we break this down with someone who has all of the answers—a doctor.

Sleep Deprivation: What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

First of all, sleep is a big deal, and we’re not getting enough. An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans (31.6% of adults age 18 and older)1 are affected by poor sleep and it’s having an impact on both our mental and physical health. When there is misalignment between our internal biological clock and the rise and set of the sun, we can find ourselves totally out of sync with the rest of the world and feel completely disconnected.2

“When people don’t get enough sleep, there are many things that happen in the body and we are constantly learning more about what this does,“ says Michael A. Grandner, PhD, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and Director of both the Sleep and Health Research Program and of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the COM in Tucson, Arizona. “For example, it can lead to systemic inflammation and it makes your brain less able to remove toxins like beta-amyloid, which can lead to dementia. Other hormones get thrown off as well, like leptin and ghrelin—which control hunger and appetite—testosterone, estrogen, insulin, and cortisol, causing many effects in the brain and body.”

Many people suffer from sleep disorders that are completely out of their control, but many more of us aren’t doing ourselves any favors with all of the blue light we bring into our beds. Blue light from our smartphones, TVs, tablets, and the like has been shown to suppress the naturally occurring melatonin in our systems and is directly linked to less sleep and major health issues, like depression. While any kind of light can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night is more powerful with studies that have shown increased rates of cancer, mood disorders, diabetes, and obesity.

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What Is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally in the pea-sized pineal gland found deep in the middle of your brain. It helps regulate sleep timing and is released into the bloodstream when it starts getting dark, signaling to our systems that it’s time to get ready for sleep. The melatonin travels to the circadian clock in the hypothalamus, which keeps the consistency between the time you wake up and go to sleep. It triggers that “wouldn’t it be nice to get into bed right now?” feeling.

But melatonin (AKA the hormone of darkness) doesn’t move your body into an immediate state of slumber, it’s more like a winding down signal that it’s time to get in your PJs as your core body temperature comes down slightly and you become less alert.

How Does Melatonin Affect The Brain And The Body?

Melatonin turns certain areas of the brain on and off, says Alon Y. Avidan MD, MPH, Director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, and Professor at the UCLA Department of Neurology in Los Angeles, California. Melatonin helps with the timing of sleep to allow people to have a more regular circadian phase (going to bed and getting up at the same times each day) and it may help to strengthen the immune system, too. “It’s important to improve sleep and the timing of sleep so people can have an optimal immune response,” he says.

Melatonin Supplements: What Do I Need to Know?

Melatonin is at the very core of whether or not we’re sleeping, but what happens when you take a melatonin supplement? “Melatonin can work as a sleeping pill and cause people to fall asleep quicker and sleep longer. In general, it is relatively safe up to 10 mg,” says Bhanu Prakash Kolla, MD, Co-Chair for Education, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, and Consultant for the Center for Sleep Medicine and the Division of Addiction Medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. “If you take a melatonin pill, it is not the pineal gland you are getting it from, but the supplement. We see it as a gentle sleeping pill.”

For some, melatonin is a little piece of magic that can help with sleep and dare we say, keep COVID-19 at bay. You can buy melatonin over-the-counter as a sleep aid and since it‘s considered a supplement and not a drug, melatonin is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The supplements are generally considered not habit-forming and they don’t leave you in a hangover fog as some prescription sleep medications can. Melatonin works for short-term sleep problems, like jet lag or a wonky sleep schedule from working the graveyard shift, and for those who have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.

“Melatonin is probably most helpful for people trying to make subtle changes to the timing of their circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Grandner. “People without sleep disorders who want to improve sleep health may find that melatonin helps as well.”

Generally, people with sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and idiopathic hypersomnia, have insomnia and circadian disorders and need more intense help than melatonin can give them, says Dr. Avidan. “People most likely use melatonin because it is readily available and makes some improvement, but it does not work for everyone. Different types of insomnia may be affected differently.”

Is Melatonin Safe for People with Mental Illness?

Taking melatonin can help those with depression because it improves seasonal affective disorder, says Dr. Avidan. “When people are not getting enough light exposure [during the winter months], like in Washington state or the Midwest, they tend to get more severe depression,” he says. “Using artificial light during the day can help the timing and release of melatonin, which will have a positive effect on mood.”

People with major depression or psychotic disorders should consult with their doctor before taking melatonin since mood changes, hallucinations, and paranoia have been reported. If you’re dealing with anxiety or depression—like many of us this past year—or if you have bipolar, melatonin may be able to help but only your doctor can tell you for sure.

Does Melatonin Help with Insomnia?

“Sleep can be elusive, and it is natural to be attracted to a quick fix,” says Dr. Grandner. “And many people know that ‘sleeping pills’ come with many negative effects so they want to avoid those. Melatonin seems to offer the convenience and simplicity of a pill, but the perceived lack of risk that comes with a supplement.”

There’s a level of comfort, too, that comes with the fact that melatonin has been studied for decades and has been extremely effective for millions of people. But Dr. Grandner warns that this doesn’t make melatonin a cure-all for everyone. “The benefits [of melatonin] to sleep do not seem to be strong enough to overpower most forms of clinical insomnia,” he says. “So, it could shift rhythms and maybe improve sleep, but it is not an effective medicine for more severe insomnia.”

Can You Naturally Raise Your Melatonin Levels?

“Melatonin is a natural hormone and there are ways to measure levels in the body,” says Dr. Kolla, “but this is usually done in research settings. There really is nothing we can do to increase our levels. Light can suppress its secretion, so avoiding light, especially bright light, in the evenings is helpful.”

Being conscious of the screens you’re staring at in the evening can play a huge role in when your melatonin levels change, but this doesn’t raise the percentage of the hormone in your body.

How Long Does Melatonin Last And Take to Kick In?

It depends on what it’s being used for, says Dr. Kolla. If used as a light sleeping pill, you can see a difference in one to two days. If being used as a “hypnotic” (a more traditional sleeping pill), the dose is 3 to 10 mg. and you can expect to feel it within 30 minutes. For circadian rhythm disorders, like when teenagers regularly going to bed at 3 AM and wake up at noon, the dose is .5 mg., and it can take weeks to feel the effects.

What Most People Get Wrong About Melatonin

Since the rest of us aren’t doctors, we probably shouldn’t be self-administering melatonin, and one of our experts agrees. “The most common error is dosing,” says Dr. Kolla. “People confuse insomnia, a difficulty falling asleep, with circadian rhythm disorders. For circadian disorders, you want to take a smaller dose and take it about an hour before your desired bedtime to give more time to set the body clock. If taking as a sleeping pill, take it 30 minutes before bedtime.”

Always check with your doctor before introducing a supplement to your routine, but better yet, bring in the exact bottle of melatonin you’d like to try to get his or her OK first. This is important because a recent study shows that the melatonin content of dietary supplements often varies widely from what is listed on the label.4 The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reported that the contents in 30 different commercial melatonin supplements varied greatly, and some even had serotonin in them, without being mentioned on the labels.5 Serotonin regulates mood and memory among other physical processes in the body and can have a very real effect on your mental health.

Is Melatonin Safe for Kids?

“There are well-done studies showing that melatonin is safe for kids if recommended by doctors,” says Dr. Kolla. “Because it’s a supplement, there is an assumption that it’s safe to take, but with kids, it is best to have them evaluated by a pediatrician or a sleep specialist for dosing suggestions.”

Melatonin is generally safe for short-term use in both children and adults, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Melatonin Risks/Side Effects

“The most common melatonin side effects include, headache, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness,” Dr. Kolla adds. These possible side effects might be a small price to pay in order to get your sleep—and your life—back on track. Talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you, and then put your phone down.

FAQs

How much melatonin should I take, and can I take it every night?

Effective doses of melatonin for sleep are generally low,” says Dr. Grandner. “The literature suggests that between 0.5 mg and 3 mg is all it takes to have a significant biological effect, especially if taken in the early evening. The effects are essentially the same, no matter the dose, especially in this range. Taking a slightly higher dose (like 5 mg) closer to bedtime may also help, though there is less data on this. Higher doses are generally not recommended unless in special situations. If you take too much, you may find that it does not work, or at least it does not work any better than a low dose. You will often have more side effects, though, from headaches and nausea to dizziness and grogginess.”

How long does it take for melatonin to work?

It depends on how many milligrams you take of melatonin and when you take it, says Dr. Avidan. “It’s hard to provide a consistent recommendation because behaviors of people are inconsistent.”

What happens if you take too much melatonin?

"We really don’t know if is safe beyond 10 mg because we have not done the studies,“ says Dr. Kolla.

Does melatonin cause weight gain?

“To my knowledge, melatonin does not cause weight gain,” says Dr. Grandner.

Who should not take melatonin?

You should always check with your doctor before taking anything, as we mentioned, but especially if you’re on anticoagulants and anti-platelet drugs, anticonvulsants, contraceptive drugs, diabetes medications, or immunosuppressants as an interaction here is possible, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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Last Updated: May 26, 2021