What is Melatonin?
If you’ve had a rough time getting to sleep lately—maybe you struggle thinking about to-dos that weren’t done, have anxious thoughts on repeat, or are dealing with jet lag—you might think about taking a melatonin supplement to soothe yourself to sleep or treat one of the many sleep disorders.
So, what does melatonin do? Melatonin is a natural sleep-inducing hormone secreted at night, according to the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). It's the pineal gland in your brain that's responsible for melatonin production. Light suppresses melatonin, while darkness triggers the release of the hormone melatonin. (This is why it's advised to stay off your phone prior to bedtime, as the bright blue glow reduces levels of melatonin.) If the process works as it should, you’ll feel enough sleepiness to doze off at your bedtime.
But for some people, poor sleep habits, psychological factors, and physical ailments may make it tough to go to sleep. It’s easy to think that taking melatonin is an easy fix. That said, according to the NCCIH, melatonin supplements aren’t appropriate for all sleep issues. When it comes to the effectiveness of melatonin, research shows it works best in certain scenarios, and usually as a short-term treatment in adults for:
1. Jet lag: You know how you can feel like absolute garbage when coming home after a flight that crosses multiple time zones? It may be tough to go to sleep at a normal time of night, or you may wake up unusually early, you may feel lots of drowsiness during the day, and these may cause downstream effects on other aspects of your health. Symptoms of jet lag may impact everything from mood to digestion.
How to take melatonin: Help your circadian rhythm adjust to the new time zone by taking melatonin two hours before your bedtime, and start three days before your trip, suggests Johns Hopkins Medicine. Pair melatonin with bright light exposure in the morning to really get your sleep-wake cycle back on track.
There are so many reasons why you have insomnia, says the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). Causes include:
- Sleep disorders, like restless legs syndrome
- Mental health disorders
- Side effects of medication
- Using alcohol or caffeine
- Environmental factors like room temperature, outside noise, or snoring bed partners
- Poor sleep hygiene habits
How to take melatonin: Currently, it’s not recommended to use melatonin to treat chronic insomnia, according to best practice guidelines published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. (Chronic insomnia is when trouble falling or staying asleep lasts more than one month.) That’s because the most effective treatment will address the underlying cause of insomnia. For example, you might learn stress management strategies, develop a consistent and calming bedtime routine, turn down the thermostat to keep your bedroom a cool, sleep-friendly temperature, and limit caffeine and alcohol.
However, notes Johns Hopkins, your healthcare provider may talk to you about using melatonin for the occasional bout of insomnia. If it’s been a couple days where the Sandman’s been pretty late, then melatonin may be able to help you get back on track and improve your sleep quality. Otherwise, lying in bed awake night after night can reinforce insomnia and create a more lasting sleep problem.
3. Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder
Have you always been a night owl? Some people have what healthcare providers call delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, which means their sleep-wake cycle is naturally set far forward. Their internal clocks tell them that their ideal bedtime is after 2 a.m.
This isn’t a problem if you have a schedule or lifestyle that can support waking up after 10 a.m. But if you have to get up in the early morning for responsibilities like work or school, you can see where you run into trouble. Going to bed late and waking up early will cut your sleep short, and ideally the recommended amount of sleep for adults is at least 7 hours per night, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Less than that puts you at risk for long-term health problems, as well as cognitive and mood issues and daytime sleepiness.
How to take melatonin: Melatonin can help you shift your sleep phase backward to be more in line with your daily schedule. Not only will you feel more ready for bed, but the supplement can also produce a hypnotic effect that makes you tired at the right time. Research in PLoS Medicine suggest that people with DSWPD take melatonin one hour before their desired bedtime. Stick with a regular sleep-wake schedule for biggest benefits.
Remember, melatonin isn’t a cure-all for sleep problems. While an over-the-counter supplement like Sleep Aid, which contains a 5 mg amount of melatonin, can supply your body with what it needs, melatonin is best when playing a supporting role to smart sleep patterns. Remember, always ask your healthcare provider if dietary supplements, including a melatonin supplement, is right for you, and follow their medical advice. Along with a melatonin supplement, sleep better by:
- Setting your sleep schedule; e.g. go to bed at the same time every night
- Developing a wind-down routine that helps you relax
- Avoiding alcohol close to bedtime
- Shutting off electronics (yes, this means staying off social media) at least an hour before bed