Melatonin for Sleep: Does It Work?
written by/ June 17, 2019
Your internal biological clock plays an important role not only in alternating between states of alertness and sleep but also in coordinating processes like hormone secretion (i.e. cortisol) and regulating your body’s temperature.
Since the 1980s, food supplement manufacturers have been producing synthesized melatonin for sleep. This is because a major factor impacting your state of alertness, or tiredness, is exposure to light or dark, respectively, and the secretion of melatonin.
On a technical level, when your body is exposed to light, the light signal that’s “caught” by the retina is conducted along the respective nerve paths, reaching a specific nucleus in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This gets your internal biological clock to send a “command” to suppress melatonin secretion, which then keeps you more alert while it’s light. The release of melatonin at night, therefore, makes it easier to relax and sleep.
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin was discovered in 1958 as a potent hormone naturally secreted by the pineal gland to regulate your biological clock. Light is the key that controls it. As daylight diminishes, your melatonin levels rise sharply, particularly about 2 hours before bedtime, and they remain high throughout the night. Once these levels rise, you begin to feel sleepy.
In the morning, usually around 9 o’clock, the light signals the brain to stop producing melatonin, its levels drop sharply, and you begin to wake up.
Since melatonin and sleep are mutually connected, it’s easy to say that melatonin essentially regulates your sleep. In fact, this hormone is one of the body’s most ancient signaling mechanisms. Even so, melatonin is also found in bacteria, unicellular organisms, and algae, as well as in different parts of plants, vertebrates, and invertebrates.
Thanks to its role in the human body’s circadian rhythm, sleep, and wakefulness, it didn’t take long for people to start producing melatonin pills for sleep.
A lack of exposure to daylight due to certain occupations can impede a person’s biological clock. On the other hand, exposure to intense light in the evening, from electric lamps or other devices, delays the body’s secretion of melatonin. Your internal biological clock can’t “recognize” the onset of night. Essentially, the body can’t produce the right levels of melatonin at the right times.
The melatonin pill was introduced for sleep because there are now so many factors that make it a challenge to fall asleep. In fact, one of the first tips for accelerating the onset of sleep is making it as dark as possible when you go to bed. Studies have shown that before the introduction of electricity, people had a more proper sleep and wake-up regimen. They relied entirely on the absence or presence of natural light when going to sleep and waking up.
How Much Melatonin Should Someone Take?
Many studies explore the impact of taking melatonin for sleep. Melatonin has proven to positively affect circadian sleep disorders, and it’s helped workers who alternate between day and night shifts. Melatonin also works exceptionally well for jet lag, and it even helps prevent it in the first place. You can simply take the recommended 0.5 mg dose of melatonin 90 minutes before what your bedtime will be at the place you’re traveling to. People also resort to melatonin when they need to “reconfigure” their biological clock. According to other studies, melatonin supplements for sleep can help older patients with chronic insomnia.
In fact, certain melatonin studies—some with almost 300 participants—found that those who took melatonin at bedtime fell asleep 3.9 minutes faster on average and slept 13 minutes longer. Melatonin has an excellent safety and efficacy profile as long as you don’t overdose. Still, studies show that the effect of melatonin is limited. Some scientists even warn that if it’s used incorrectly, it can cause harm.
Interestingly, melatonin benefits the treatment of various diseases unrelated to sleep, such as breast and prostate cancer, hyperactivity and attention deficit syndrome, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain conditions. For most of them, a fully verified justification of the benefits—as well as any possible side effects—can’t be established at this moment. However, there are several ongoing clinical trials for these uses of melatonin.
Melatonin is available in a tablet form on the free market. There are also powder substances that can be applied under the tongue or rubbed into the oral cavity. Thus, melatonin is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. However, everyone should choose the best way to take melatonin for sleep based on their own preferences.
You should really only take melatonin after consulting with a doctor. There are even a few people who have had better results from taking the hormone in the morning.
The challenge with melatonin is that its use is complicated. If you take it at an inappropriate time, it can shift your biological clock in the wrong direction. This can cause other problems, according to sleep experts.
How to Take Melatonin for Sleep
Melatonin does not affect your duration of sleep. Instead, it shortens the time needed for you to fall asleep by 12 minutes and can help you create a healthy, natural sleep schedule. Studies among people taking the natural hormone show that they tend to fall asleep earlier and sleep more peacefully.
But the following question comes to mind: Does melatonin make it harder to wake up? Happily, the answer is no. This is because its antagonist, serotonin, which becomes active at sunrise, suddenly causes a fall in melatonin production.
Now keep in mind that when melatonin is combined with caffeine, the effects of the natural hormone may remain hidden. Caffeine increases your heart rate and excites the nervous system by improving its blood supply.
Doctors also recommend a careful melatonin dosage for patients with diabetes and hypertension. In hypertensive patients taking other blood pressure control medicines, melatonin should be given with extreme caution due to the risk of a hypotensive crisis (low blood pressure).
Overall increased control of the hormone may be necessary, especially when melatonin is co-administered with sedative and anxiolytic drugs. Contraceptives or medications to treat migraine typically enhance melatonin production physiologically. This can significantly raise the hormone’s level in the blood, which can then increase the occurrence of melatonin side effects. Also, melatonin may weaken the effectiveness of other pills and contraceptives.
Common Side Effects
When using it for a prolonged period, it may cause headaches, short-term depression, drowsiness, daytime tiredness, dizziness, and abdominal cramps. And due to the pronounced immunostimulating effect of melatonin, specialists suggest increased caution with the additional use of immuno-activators. Furthermore, it may affect a woman’s ovulation if she’s of a fertile age. In addition, neurologists recommend you don’t use machines or drive within five hours after taking melatonin.
Beyond helping with sleep, melatonin benefits anxiety treatment, coordination disorders, insomnia combined with psychomotor agitation, hypertonic crisis, etc. Taking melatonin by mouth improves a disturbed sleep-wake cycle in children and adults with mental illness, autism, and central nervous system diseases. As we’ll see in the following section, trouble sleeping often accompanies these diseases and disorders in children in the first place.
Melatonin for Babies and Children – How and When to Use It
Lack of sleep—or so-called insomnia—is a rare disease in children (only 6%), except in the case of hyperkinetic disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), generalized developmental or autism spectrum disorders, or epilepsy. In the diseases mentioned above, insomnia targets 50%–75% of children.
A sleep deficiency can lead to various complications related to memory, concentration, and behavior during the day. Looking for a remedy to alleviate these symptoms, we have to exclude any sedative medicines that aren’t appropriate for children. Luckily, if they need melatonin for sleep, kids can take it as a dietary supplement. It’s the only safe option.
Melatonin shortens the time it takes to sleep, reduces nighttime wakefulness, and contributes to a deeper sleep in children suffering from ADHD, autism, and epilepsy. Furthermore, it’s thought that one of the possible causes of sleep disturbances in these children may be the inadequate synthesis of melatonin.
Melatonin works in children, but how safe is it? The intake of melatonin is harmless, even for the particularly young ones. In terms of any melatonin side effects, kids shouldn’t experience anything worrying. Actually, the synthesis of melatonin plays a vital role in the body’s normal hormonal processes.
More specifically, melatonin synthesis depends on the synthesis of other hormones such as cortisol, growth hormone, and testosterone. Thus, melatonin secretion is a determining factor during puberty and is significantly important for sexual development.
Animal studies with melatonin have also shown some negative results, but a melatonin overdose was the cause of these issues. Recently, however, numerous animal studies and experiments have shown that short-term melatonin treatment can be quite effective against some typical pregnancy complications.
Nevertheless, discussion about the use of melatonin during pregnancy is a little more controversial. For many years, it’s been considered unsuitable for pregnant women. Namely, animal experiments indicate that melatonin doses of 10 mg per kilogram of body weight cause some complications, such as fetal weight problems. However, we must bear in mind that the acceptable dose of melatonin in humans is between 1 and 3 mg per day, so in the above-mentioned animal tests, the doses were greatly increased.
The most important conclusion here is that if we keep below a melatonin dose of 3 mg per day, there’s no danger to either the fetus or mother. On the contrary, melatonin can act quite favorably within the various stages of pregnancy.
A study demonstrated that the laughter and positive emotions brought on when new mothers watched an entertaining film significantly increased the levels of melatonin in their breast milk. This effect, on the other hand, reduced the risk of allergies in the baby. The authors concluded that the risk of taking tolerated doses of melatonin should be just as dangerous to the mother or breastfed child as laughter or happiness.
Still, the use of melatonin for kids also remains controversial. Specialists said that it should be applied only for proven conditions such as insomnia and ADHD.
There are a number of products on the market right now, all enriched with melatonin.
You can find combinations of vitamins and aroma teas, a wide variety of mouthwash products, and even gummies and candies—making it easy for kids to take it.
And they’re becoming more and more popular for both adults and children. Sales of these dietary supplements are rising steadily. Some researchers, however, are worried that consumers have too straightforward an understanding of this rather complex and powerful hormone for it to be taken uncontrolled.
How can I increase my melatonin levels?
When your body already produces melatonin naturally at night, taking a hormone supplement from an external source is a bit like spitting into the ocean. It really won’t accomplish much at all. In line with this, a more massive dose of melatonin can cause sleep (about 3 mg), but only about a third of people take this much.
How much melatonin should I take for sleep?
Taking 0.5 to 3 mg of melatonin about 45 minutes before going to bed will have a great effect on your insomnia. And if you’re a night owl, and you only sleep between 2 a.m. and noon, you can take a low dose of melatonin (0.5 mg) at 11 p.m., long before your natural melatonin starts to be released. This will not only help you fall asleep earlier, but it will also move your internal clock forward.
Can you take melatonin every day?
Melatonin can be used for standard sleep disturbances, as well as in specific situations. After a weekend of staying up late, a low dose of melatonin (0.3 mg) Sunday afternoon can help you get back to your regular bedtime so you avoid any stress from getting up early on Monday. Or a small 0.3 mg dose of melatonin taken late in the afternoon can alleviate the symptoms of winter depression in some people.
However, it’s unclear whether it’s safe for long-term use. Therefore, after your biological clock gets back to normal, it’s best to discontinue use.
Is melatonin safe for sleeping?
It’s believed that short-term use of melatonin (up to several months) is safe in healthy people. However, it can lead to an increase in blood sugar and is, therefore, not recommended for people with diabetes.
When it comes to children, specialists have a lot of worries. If children take a larger dose or drink it without a doctor’s supervision, it can lead to nausea, diarrhea, headaches, mood swings, drowsiness that goes into the next day, and dropping into bed.
Yet no specific results show that taking melatonin as recommended can harm children and adolescents.
Can melatonin make you tired the next day?
When quantities of it are too high, this can also lead to nightmares and general fatigue the next day. Also, keep in mind that melatonin may weaken the effectiveness of the other medicines you’re taking, such as pills for high blood pressure, seizures, or contraceptives.
If children consume a larger dose of melatonin without a doctor’s supervision, it can lead to drowsiness the next day, as well.
For adults whose biological clock has shifted for one reason or another, or they suffer from other sleep disturbances, it’s worth trying out melatonin for sleep. Just select the appropriate brand and take doses below 3 mg to avoid any side effects. Once your sleeping normalizes, stop taking the hormone, because we don’t know if it is safe to be taken longer.