What You Need to Know About This Popular Sleep Aid
An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans struggle with quality of sleep or a sleep disorder every night–and many, wary of traditional pharmaceutical sleep aids, are reaching for an increasing popular alternative: melatonin.
Now you know me–I always advocate for natural sleep aids and solutions; in fact, I’ve written extensively about natural remedies, from supplements to aromatherapy to even changing your bedroom environment and investing in a supportive pillow. But when it comes to melatonin, or any sleep aid for that matter, clients always ask:
Should I take melatonin supplements for my sleep? And are there any side effects?
Today we’ll dive into what melatonin is, if you should consider it as a natural sleep aid, and how to use it effectively to get to sleep faster and stay asleep longer tonight.
What Is Melatonin? And What Does It Do?
Chances are, you’ve at least heard of melatonin. But before you consider it as a sleep aid, let’s quickly talk about exactly what it is. Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by your body. It’s secreted from the pineal gland, which is the pebble-sized gland in the middle of the brain.
Often referred to as the “sleep hormone, melatonin helps our sleep by regulating our body’s response to light. The pineal gland releases melatonin when it’s dark; that’s our body’s way of keeping our body clocks synced up with the daytime. Melatonin helps cut down the time it takes to fall asleep, and also improves our sleep quality and sleep duration.
Research has also suggested that melatonin may increase the time we spend in REM sleep. REM sleep is especially important for memory consolidation and mood regulation.
What Limits Melatonin Production
On the other hand, light suppresses melatonin production. When light hits your retina, it signals to the pineal gland to stop producing melatonin — letting your body know it’s time to wake up in the process. That’s why it’s harder to fall asleep in a bright room than it is if it’s pitch black.
For years, we didn’t know exactly how melatonin fostered better sleep. That’s starting to change in recent years, though, as more research comes in. For example, one study, led by the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2018, found melatonin suppresses specific neurons that, when firing, trigger the body to start waking up. Melatonin, in essence, steps in and lets your brain know it’s time to rest.
One thing you’ll want to keep in mind, too: melatonin production drops off during the summer, when it stays light out longer.
Does Age Impact Melatonin Production?
The short answer is “yes.” Melatonin production decreases as we get older — and the drop off starts early, with research showing the highest melatonin levels are found in kids ages 4 and under. That’s completely normal and makes sense; we need less sleep as we get older and stop growing.
Still, it doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive. For years, I’ve recommended taking a small dose of melatonin for adults who have a hard time falling asleep. We’ll get into dosage more in just one second.
Sleep Problems Melatonin Can Help With
If you and your doctor think that a melatonin supplement could be right for you, you may wonder what sleep disorders or problems it can help.
While we can’t say definitively for everyone, there is research backing melatonin supplements helping with these common sleep issues:
- Menopause-induced sleep issues, including hot flashes
- Restless leg syndrome
- Sleep problems stemming from conditions like ADHD, like sleep disordered breathing
- Jet lag
Jet lag, in particular, has been one issue I’ve routinely used melatonin to tackle. I’ve mentioned before that, when traveling, I’ll take 0.5 mg of melatonin about 90 minutes before I want to fall asleep in my new city. I’ll also add 20 minutes of light therapy in the morning, to help my body continue to adjust.
And if you want to get additional benefits out of your melatonin supplement, make sure you’re optimizing your daily routine for sleep by finding out your chronotype. Don’t know your chronotype? No big deal — just head over to chronoquiz.com. It’s quick and easy.
How Much Melatonin Should I Take?
Your melatonin dosage depends on why you’re taking it. For most people, melatonin is primarily used as a regulator of the sleep-wake cycle. In those cases, melatonin doses range from 0.3 mg to 5 mg. For countering sleep-wake cycle disruptions, melatonin dosages range from 2 mg to 12 mg.
For a short term problem, like t jet lag, dosages range from 0.5 mg to 8 mg. I recommend taking them the first day you arrive in the city until you leave, but always run it by a medical professional if you’ve never taken melatonin before.Don’t start off with the highest dosage; as with most supplements, start off at the bottom end of the miligram guidelines, and work your way up from there depending on how your body responds.
I’d also recommend taking a magnesium supplement as well; this is something I do as well, and my go-to is Jigsaw MagSoothe. Magnesium is important because it helps regulate the body’s melatonin production, with lower levels of magnesium usually linked to lower melatonin levels.
One more thing you’ll want to remember: the optimal time to take your melatonin is about a half hour to an hour before bed.
Can I Take Melatonin on a Daily Basis?
I want to make this point clear before going any farther: I recommend that everyone consults with their doctor before taking a new supplement or making changes to their medication and supplement routine.
Now to the question at hand: If you get the green light from your doctor, taking a daily dose of melatonin at the recommended milligram levels — up to 5 mg per day — has been shown to be a safe and effective sleep aid. Again, you’ll likely want to keep your dosage low when first starting out; you can always increase your daily dosage. Also, remember melatonin is a hormone, and with anything hormone-related, you’re better off treading lightly at first.
Also, before using melatonin, consider the potential side effects. The most common side effects, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:
Other less common side effects include: Mild anxiety, stomach cramps, disorientation and short-term depression.
Something to Consider When Picking Your Melatonin Supplement
Do your research. I can’t stress this enough when it comes to picking your melatonin supplement. Because unfortunately, the reliability of melatonin supplements varies wildly. One scientific study found that more than 7 out of 10 melatonin supplements contain 10% more or less melatonin than marketed.
The study, from Ontario’s University of Guelph, also found there can be an incredibly wide range in how much melatonin is contained in the supplements; some had 83% less melatonin than marketed, while others had nearly 500% more melatonin. That’s a problem, of course, because you can easily end up taking an improper dose, through no fault of your own.
Before picking a supplement, ask if your doctor recommends a particular brand. Your local vitamin store may also be a good source of information. Factor in your own online research, and you should give yourself a solid foundation for selecting a worthy melatonin supplement.
Health Benefits Tied to Melatonin
Healthy melatonin levels go beyond helping you get a good night’s sleep. Melatonin has also been tied to a number of health benefits. Research has shown healthy nighttime melatonin levels, for instance, can reduce a person’s risk of diabetes by half. Antioxidants from melatonin may also help lower the risk of serious cardiovascular conditions, including heart attack. In fact, I’ve discussed how the health benefits of melatonin may even help prevent conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, — so if you’re interested in learning more, definitely give it a read.