If you’ve done any poking around on the Internet in search of sleep solutions, you’ve likely come across discussions of melatonin. Similarly, your local pharmacy probably has a dizzying array of melatonin supplements on its shelves (I know mine does).
But what is melatonin exactly? Can it help those of us with serious sleeplessness or insomnia?
This “Dracula” Hormone Only Comes Out at Night
Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally in the brain’s pea-sized pineal gland.
During the day, your pineal gland is inactive, but as darkness sets in, it wakes up, produces melatonin, and releases that melatonin into your bloodstream. With increased melatonin levels, you begin to feel less alert and sleepy. Boy, does that bed start to look good.
Blue Light is Not Melatonin’s Friend
By the way, melatonin is one of the reasons those us of looking to improve our sleep should stay away from electronic devices and their “blue” light in the evenings. Blue light can fool our bodies into thinking it’s daytime, disrupt our natural melatonin cycle, and, in turn, our sleep. Indeed, according to experts at Harvard Medical School blue wavelengths of light can potentially shift circadian rhythms and melatonin secretion by 3 hours (twice as much as other types of light waves.)
Can Added Melatonin Help You to Sleep Better?
Melatonin is most useful for people with sleep disorders involving the body’s natural “clock” or circadian rhythm – so if you suffer from jet lag, sleep disruptions due to shift work, or sleep phase disorder (a disruption of the body’s biological clock), your doctor might recommend a short course of melatonin to get you back on track.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), study results are mixed on whether melatonin is effective for insomnia in adults. Some studies suggest it may slightly reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. What’s “slightly”? In a study published in the journal Work, melatonin helped people to fall asleep 7 minutes faster. A meta-analysis of melatonin use in older adults found that it helped study participants to fall asleep 6 minutes faster and to sleep 18 minutes longer.
Melatonin and Safety
As I’ve mentioned, melatonin is available “over-the-counter,” meaning you don’t need a prescription to buy it and it’s not considered a medicine by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). That certainly makes it convenient, but it also means that the factories that make melatonin supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA. Ingredients, quality, and dosages are thus not necessarily consistent, says the Sleep Foundation. And, many products on the market contain much more melatonin than your body would ever naturally produce. A 1 to 3 mg dose, for instance, can increase your melatonin levels by as much as 20 times. And, no, with melatonin more is not better. The Mayo Clinic cites potential melatonin side effects as:
Other, less common melatonin side effects include short-term feelings of depression, mild tremor, mild anxiety, abdominal cramps, irritability, reduced alertness, confusion or disorientation, and abnormally low blood pressure (hypotension). For safety and due to the potential for daytime drowsiness, experts warn against taking melatonin within 5 hours of driving or operating heavy machinery.
In addition, melatonin supplements can interact with various medications, including:
- Anticoagulants and anti-platelet drugs
- Contraceptive drugs
- Diabetes medications
- Medications that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants)
Talk to your doctor or sleep therapist about whether your battles with insomnia may include a circadian or sleep/wake cycle component that melatonin supplementation could help address. As mentioned above, for some people, melatonin can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep but it’s not an insomnia cure. Rather, your care provider might suggest melatonin on a trial basis or as part of larger, more comprehensive insomnia treatment plan. And because melatonin supplements’ quality and dosages can vary, discuss the best product and dose for your situation with a knowledgeable healthcare provider.
Looking for a more reliable insomnia treatment plan?
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) is recommended by sleep experts as first line treatment for insomnia with or without co-existing medical conditions (like depression, anxiety, and PTSD). The American College of Physicians reports that CBT-i is safer than medications for insomnia, while the American Psychological Association says CBT-i works better than medications for insomnia.
Watch Circady.com and get on the mailing list for more information about CBT-i that will utilize video chat along with an app and mobile, wearable, and home-sensor technologies for interactive, expert, customized sleep care wherever you are.