As sleep becomes increasingly difficult for many of us, melatonin is increasingly easy to find. It’s in gummies, pills, powders, teas, drinks and more, all promising better, more restful sleep.
However, things are not all positive when it comes to melatonin. While it works fantastic for some people, it can also have some unpleasant side effects, such as nightmares. Furthermore, doses stated on melatonin labels can be notoriously unreliable.
In this guide, I interviewed doctors and supplement experts to learn how melatonin works, how to use it safely, who should avoid it, and some safe alternatives.
How melatonin works
Melatonin, nicknamed the sleep hormone, is a hormone we all produce naturally, according to Jade Wu, PhD, DBSM, and sleep health expert at Mattress Firms.
It’s fundamentally a hormone that keeps time, she explains. Levels naturally rise in the evening and remain high at night to promote sleep, and then decline in the early morning and remain low during the day to help promote wakefulness.
This predictable pattern helps your brain and body know what time it is, she says. And when to start or stop certain biological processes, such as sleeping and waking up.
Because light inhibits melatonin synthesis and secretion, adds Kevin Walker, MD, medical director of the Intermountain Health Sleep Disorders Center, melatonin is synthesized primarily at night, typically starting when it gets dark outside. This makes it a key regulator of your circadian rhythm, or your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
Many people who struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep turn to melatonin supplements. Melatonin supplements for children are also very easy to find. However, it doesn’t work for everyone, says Walker. He explains that melatonin supplements can be helpful for natural night owls, but that people with true insomnia may find that it does little or nothing for them.
Wu adds: The goal is to help change a person’s circadian phase, or the timing of biological clock functions, not to induce sleep.
It can also help with jet lag and be a useful tool for people who work night shifts. For all these purposes, strategic timing is essential. Wu says you can train your body to produce melatonin sooner by giving it a jump start with supplemental melatonin. before you start to feel sleepy. Most supplement labels instruct users to take melatonin thirty minutes to an hour before bed.
Who Should Avoid Melatonin
As a general rule, young children and pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid melatonin entirely. Aubrey Wells, MD, sleep medicine physician and founder of Super Sleep MD, warns that caution should be exercised with any medication that comes in gummy form, as children will perceive it as candy and will be motivated to take a super physiological dose. . In other words, children who mistake these supplements for candy can easily consume too much melatonin, so keep them out of reach of little ones.
Walker warns that melatonin can also interact with other medications, such as anticoagulants, anticonvulsants, immunosuppressants and sedative medications.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before adding melatonin to your routine.
Taking Melatonin Safely
It is essential to consider the dosage. Our bodies only produce about 0.1 milligram of melatonin at night, Walker explains, so any formulation of melatonin already exists in a higher dose than we produce naturally.
Most melatonin supplements for adults range in melatonin content from 1 milligram to 12 milligrams per serving, but according to Dr. Daniel Barone, associate medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine, 1 to 3 milligrams per night is enough for most people.
In fact, Wells says doses above 5 milligrams are not considered more effective than lower doses. She also recommends using single-ingredient preparations rather than supplements that contain melatonin along with several other active ingredients. That way, she says, you can know what works and what causes side effects.
Additionally, several experts I spoke to pointed out that the melatonin content reported on supplement labels is often completely wrong. Large-scale studies have shown that over-the-counter melatonin can be unreliable when it comes to dosing, Wu says. The actual dosage in the pills can be up to five times that advertised on the label. This is yet another argument for keeping the effective dose lower and taking extreme caution when administering melatonin supplements to children.
Finally, melatonin can cause some side effects, especially if you are taking a higher dose. Barone explains that some commonly reported side effects include nightmares, a hangover the next day, and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Alternatives to melatonin
There are also several alternatives to melatonin, whether you prefer to go the more natural route or suspect you might need something more powerful. Here are a few that the experts I spoke with recommended.
The mineral magnesium can be helpful for sleep. According to Maggie Moon, MS, brain health nutritionist and author of The MIND dietIt can help improve sleep for people with insomnia and those who need help balancing age-related ups and downs in sleep quality.
She recommends trying to increase your magnesium intake through food before turning to dietary supplements, if possible. The top magnesium-rich foods are pumpkin seeds and chia seeds, she says. I would recommend chia pudding after dinner to naturally increase magnesium levels; just avoid chocolate at night as it is a natural source of caffeine.
Moon also explains that chamomile tea is naturally rich in a substance called apigenin. Research suggests that apigenin may offer calming effects that translate into better sleep.
All the more reason to enjoy a cozy cup of chamomile at night, she says.
It may be worth considering prescription sleep medications, especially if you have insomnia, says Wu. However, she cautions that these medications are really designed for short-term use.
You will need to make an appointment with your doctor to pursue this option.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Surprisingly, though, Wu says the best treatment for insomnia isn’t a medication, supplement, or herbal concoction—it’s therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), explains Walker, has similar benefits in the short term compared to prescription sleep aids and is superior in the long term.
This type of therapy focuses on addressing the behaviors and attitudes that may be worsening insomnia and providing proactive strategies for overcoming these habits or thought patterns. For example, it includes sleep hygiene training, relaxation techniques, and reframing destructive or negative thoughts.
How to Naturally Regulate Melatonin
Since your body naturally produces melatonin, there are also some lifestyle and sleep hygiene practices that can help regulate melatonin production to improve your sleep-wake cycle, all without supplementation.
Consume foods rich in melatonin
Some foods naturally contain melatonin, such as cherries and pistachios. Consuming these foods it could They help increase circulating levels of melatonin in your body, but the jury is still out on whether they can actually improve sleep.
Avoid blue light before bed
Artificial blue light, like the light emitted from phone, laptop, and tablet screens, is a known circadian rhythm disruptor. Melatonin production in the body is highly dependent on darkness. While it can be a big adjustment, avoiding screens an hour or two before bed can help you sleep better. Keeping the room dark also helps, so turn off any flickering lights and consider blackout curtains if outside light is an issue.
Bright light therapy upon waking and avoiding light, including electronic screens, a few hours before bed are very useful supplements to melatonin to help regulate the circadian clock, explains Walker. And speaking of bright light therapy
Get early morning sun exposure
Just as darkness is necessary to promote drowsiness, light promotes wakefulness. Spending time outside in the sun every morning can help you wake up more easily (if that’s not an option, a sunrise alarm clock is a good alternative). Combined with avoiding excessive light at night, this can help reprogram an irregular circadian rhythm.
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