If you can’t fall asleep night after night, it’s no wonder that you’re looking for a sleep aid–and as awareness grows about the addictive nature and side effects of sleeping pills, one natural supplement has nearly become a household name: melatonin.
Taking melatonin to help sleep, of course, is nothing new. But a problem I see is that so many clients are interested in natural sleep aids–without understanding when, how much, and who should take them.
With products flooding the market like melatonin gummies; Reddit threads advising dosage and how much melatonin you should take, and even questions about if dogs and kids can take melatonin, it’s safe to say there’s a lot you may not know about taking melatonin.
What is Melatonin?
Let’s start with the basics. Whenever a client comes to me looking for a way to help them sleep better, I like to start by making sure we can not only pinpoint reasons they’re having trouble falling and staying asleep, but also if natural sleep aids, like my Sleep Doctor PM Spray, lifestyle changes, or other methods can help.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone, often nicknamed the sleep hormone (though there are actually many hormones that work together to regulate your sleep cycle). Melatonin regulates your sleep and wake cycles and responds to light and dark, naturally increases with darkness and decreasing with light exposure.
This sensitivity to light helps us fall asleep naturally; it’s also why it’s important to avoid blue light exposure at night, which can disrupt sleep cycles; for this, I recommend wearing blue light blocking glasses for anyone working on their tablets or smartphones late at night.
What Are Melatonin Supplements Used For?
Melatonin levels dip for a variety of reasons, often due to fluctuations in our exposure to light, changes in our schedules, and even factors such as age, medical conditions, and genetics. Melatonin is usually available as over the counter supplements, alongside vitamin and mineral supplements.
Melatonin supplements are typically taken for the following reasons.
Jet lag is considered a short term sleep disturbance that tends to be associated with travel and adapting to different time zones. Characterized by daytime sleepiness, trouble sleeping, and irritability, jet lag is basically your body’s circadian rhythm trying to adjust to these changes. Though it normally goes away within a few days, jet lag lasts longer the more drastic the change in time zones.
Shift work, in many ways, is not that different from jet lag, in that your body’s natural circadian rhythm is being disrupted, though with shift work normally longer term strategies are used to manage symptoms of insomnia. A study of 683 participants published in the American Academy of Sleep Science found that shift workers have lower levels of hormones associated with sleep regulation and are more prone to depression, anger, and fatigue related accidents.
One of the most common reasons I see people asking if they should take a melatonin supplement is actually generalized insomnia–that is, having troubling falling and staying asleep. For these people, they simply want a good nights’ sleep, but they may or may not know, or be aware of, why they’re experiencing insomnia. Reasons could range from a serious sleep disorder, like sleep apnea (where breathing passages need help staying open during the night using a CPAP, to poor sleep hygiene, stress, or an underlying medical condition.
When Should You Take Melatonin?
When to take melatonin is a two part answer: if you should take it at all, and, if so, how to time melatonin supplements to get the best effects possible. Let’s start with the sleep science behind melatonin supplements and how effective they are for sleep problems
For Jet Lag: For Short Term Symptoms
A 2014 meta analysis published in the Nutrition Journal studied results from eight clinical trials regarding melatonin and its effectiveness for treating short term insomnia brought about by insomnia. Two thirds of those studies found that melatonin decreased symptoms of jet lag, and small studies have likewise seen modest improvements.
For Shift Work: For Falling Asleep, But Not Much Else
We know that shift workers are at an increased risk for insomnia and even poor health conditions, but can you take a melatonin supplement to mitigate these effects? A study in the Journal of Circadian Rhythms suggests melatonin may be helpful in some ways, but not others.
The double blind, randomized study of 86 workers took place over a night and 4 days for monitoring. The study did find significant reduction in the time it took workers to fall asleep, but, curiously, the overall sleep time and quality did not improve.
For All Other Sleep Problems: Maybe
This summary of melatonin supplements is this: there has been a good deal of research to suggest that, when used in the right dosage, melatonin may help most of us fall asleep more quickly. The evidence for overall sleep and sleep quality, however, is more mixed and depends on a myriad of factors.
Does Melatonin Have Side Effects? Who Shouldn’t Take It?
Even though melatonin is naturally occurring, like any supplements you take, dosage and timing are both important– and melatonin can have some mild side effects. How much melatonin is too much varies by individual and health conditions. Overdosing on melatonin is rare but it’s important to be aware of proper dosage levels.
For most, side effects from melatonin supplements are mild and include feeling tired during the day, irritability, and mild headaches. These are usually due to using the wrong dose, or timing it incorrectly. In order to avoid side effects, and to make the most out of melatonin supplements, consider:
Kids and Melatonin
Melatonin is only recommended in modest amounts, up to once a day; for teens, it is possible that melatonin supplements could have a detrimental effect on hormone levels and growth. As such, small doses are best and under doctor supervision.
Melatonin may be a natural sleep aid, but it can interact with a number of medications, including anticonvulsants; blood pressure meds; birth control; Valium; Luvox; diabetes meds; seizure medications; immunosuppressants, and anticoagulants.
Women who are pregnant or plan on getting pregnant; people with bleeding disorders; people who’ve had an organ transplant, and patients with diabetes should think twice as melatonin can have negative side effects. In women, melatonin supplements can cause issues with breastfeeding. Melatonin supplements, likewise, can lower immune system functioning, put you at a higher risk for bleeding, and may worsen depressive symptoms. If any of these conditions apply to you, consult with your physician before taking melatonin.
What Common Mistakes Do People Make Taking Melatonin?
As you can see, whether or not you should take melatonin supplements is not a one size fits all answer. Sleep and sleep disorders are very individual: that’s why I’m so passionate about finding your personalized sleep plan by following your chronotype.
That said there are several mistakes people make when using melatonin supplements that you need to avoid.
Relying on Any Melatonin Gummies
As melatonin becomes more popular, so have supplements in the form of melatonin gummies. I’m not saying that melatonin gummies are a red flag, but do be aware that kids might be tempted to treat them like candy. Seek a doctor’s advice if you aren’t sure.
Taking Melatonin At the Wrong Time
As I said before, knowing when to take melatonin is important. Take a dosage around two hours before bedtime, and adjust by half hour increments as needed. Too early and it’ll peak too soon; two late and it could cause you to feel drowsy the next day.
My advice: if you’re taking melatonin in pill form, take ½ mg to 1 ½ mg about 90 minutes before bed. If you’re taking melatonin in liquid form, take that same dosage but half an hour before bedtime.
Taking Melatonin Every Night–And Doing Nothing Else
Melatonin is best taken for those struggling with insomnia but also willing to combine other methods, such as other natural sleep aids and environmental changes, like a pair of sweat wicking pajamas.
That’s also why my Sleep Doctor PM formula comes in the beginning of the night and middle of the night formula. The beginning of the night formula contains melatonin to help you fall asleep but the middle of the night formula does not so that you are able to get back to sleep without waking up with groggy side effects. Letting sleep issues and other conditions go is also not helpful. Melatonin can be used as a temporary aide, but long term, changes need to be made to take control of your sleep problems.
The most important takeaway: taking melatonin is not a panacea. You should start with consulting a doctor and roll out any potentially serious medical conditions or sleep disorders first.
Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!