How Melatonin Helps Sleep
If you have trouble sleeping, melatonin is a popular and simple remedy. It is effective for many people, has no major safety concerns, and is available as pills or gummies for pennies per dose. However, this is also misunderstood: melatonin is not a traditional sleeping pill.
How does the “hormone of darkness” melatonin work?
Sleep signals are complex, but the important thing to know about melatonin is that it doesn’t tell the body to sleep; he tells the body that it is night . This may seem like a minor difference, but it means melatonin won’t shut you down like a sleeping pill , and it can’t cure all types of sleep problems – just a few that arise from a malfunctioning biological clock.
Our actions during the day, such as when we go to bed and when we eat, are programmed in part by the brain’s signaling system and the hormones that make up our body’s clock . Melatonin helps keep your body clock in sync with the earth’s day and night cycles by using comfortable sunlight sensors in front of your face. You know, to the eyeballs.
Some of the light entering our eyes helps signal a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Almost no light penetrates at night, and the SCN tells the nearby pineal gland to produce melatonin, which then circulates in our blood.
Melatonin supplements increase the amount of melatonin circulating in our blood. Even small doses of pills, around 0.5 milligrams, can increase the amount circulating in our body. Most melatonin tablets are in the range of 0.5 to 5 milligrams. Large sums are not needed; the signal appears to be dose-independent. (Imagine yelling to someone that it’s night, rather than speaking in a low voice. They will get the message anyway.)
What Melatonin Supplements Can (and Can’t) Do
For some people, sometimes melatoninhas a hypnotic (immediate sleep) effect . But its effect on the bias of the biological clock is much stronger and more reliable. This means that sometimes it can do the opposite of what you want. Take melatonin in the morning, for example, and you may end up awake later – because you just told your poor confused brain that day is night. Baby sleep specialist Dr. Craig Kanapari of Yale Pediatric Sleep Center made the video above to show how the effects of melatonin change depending on when you take it.
This effect may be partly responsible for some of the confusion over how well melatonin works. Vox recently published several reviews of melatonin research. One physician described the effect of melatonin on insomnia as positive but weak; another said melatonin is a “disgusting sleeping pill.”
These various studies may obscure a real effect that only applies to people with certain biological clock problems. Dr. Nitun Verma , Stanford-trained sleep specialist and longtime friend of Lifehacker, says “It’s hard to tell what percentage of people will benefit from melatonin because some studies have looked at populations with only insomnia or delayed sleep disorder. (DSPS) or a combination thereof. “
Delayed sleep phase syndrome is common in young people and high-tech people, Dr. Verma said, and people with DSPS are more likely to benefit from melatonin than people who simply have insomnia.
Besides DSPS, melatonin can help with other circadian rhythm disorders. A Cochrane review found melatonin to be “extremely effective” for biorhythm travelers , especially people traveling east. Another Cochrane review looked at drugs for shift workers and found that while melatonin is not very effective, it is still better than other types of sleeping pills .
Should you take melatonin?
Even if your problem is related to melatonin, melatonin is not the only answer. Exposing the eyes to sunlight and darkness at the right time also helps in syncing hormones and retraining the brain. This is why screens before bed can knock your biological clock: your brain receives a “daytime” signal when it is actually night. On the other hand, it is unwise to take melatonin and then watch movies on your iPad while you wait until you fall asleep.
Insomnia can also be a symptom of other medical or mental problems , including depression, anxiety, and sleep apnea . If insomnia is interfering with your life, and especially if you have other medical or mental problems that may be associated, talk to a specialist. Start with your regular doctor, or you can find a local sleep specialist with this guide from the National Sleep Foundation . They can help determine if there is a root cause for insomnia and recommend more comprehensive support.
Each drug has its own risks, and thankfully, melatonin does not have very serious risks – at least as our current research has shown. Last year, an Australian pediatrician warned that we should not assume melatonin is safe for children because its long-term effects are not well understood. One problem is that long-term use can affect the hormones involved in puberty . Melatonin affects the entire body, and Dr. Verma points out that it can also affect fertility , which is why he does not recommend it to people who are trying to conceive.
Melatonin can also affect how your body processes other medicines , including birth control. As always, it is best to discuss your situation with your doctor.
If you want to try melatonin, you can buy it as a dietary supplement in the US and Canada. It is considered a prescription drug in many other countries, including most of Europe . Because it is an additive, our FDA does not closely monitor how the tablets are made. Supplements are always a game , so keep that in mind.
I asked several people who regularly use melatonin how they would describe this feeling. Everyone agreed that it was milder than something like Benadryl , the infamous allergy drug that causes drowsiness. “More like a warm glass of milk than being hit with a blunt object,” is a typical description. Everyone agreed that this also made them unwilling to sleep in the morning. One complaint I heard on several occasions was that it gave people very vivid dreams . It’s unclear if crazy dreams are a side effect of melatonin or just something that happens when you go to bed .
So, melatonin is real medicine that can help you sleep, depending on why you are awake. Don’t expect miracles and take them at the right time: ideally five hours before your expected bedtime . Since we don’t know very much about the potential risks, most of the sources I consulted when writing this article say to use the lowest dose that works (try 0.5 milligrams to start), and if you intend to use it in for a long time, talk to your doctor.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona .