You’re lying in bed, in the dark, eyes wide open—again. There are few things more frustrating than needing to sleep and being unable to do so, and yet, according to the American Sleep Association, about 30 million Americans have trouble getting adequate shut-eye.
Among the handful of go-to techniques for catching z’s (which can include a consistent nighttime routine, turning off screens at least an hour before bed, magnesium, a warm bath, and warm tea or milk) is melatonin, a supplement which many sleep-deprived people swear by.
What Is Melatonin?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, humans are cued for sleep by exposure to light and dark. Exposure to light (your phone included!) stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to your brain—specifically, the hypothalamus. Here, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (say that three times fast) tells your body to release certain hormones, like melatonin, that have to do with sleep.
Melatonin, which modulates sleep and wake cycles, is released by the pineal gland in your brain. In the daylight, your pineal gland is inactive, but when nighttime (and, therefore, darkness) comes around, melatonin floods your body and you begin to feel sleepy. Having low melatonin is one possible reason why a person may have insomnia, according to Scientific World Journal.
Who Should Take Melatonin?
Keri Glassman, RD, recommends melatonin supplements for her clients struggling with occasional sleeplessness, which can be the result of garden-variety sleep issues: jet-lag, a night-shift at work, or anxiety.
Although Glassman does suggest melatonin in supplement form (one capsule is about three mg), she also makes sure her clients are aware that melatonin can also be found in food: “Foods like tart cherries actually have naturally-occurring melatonin, and you can reap the benefits just from adding them to your diet,” Glassman says. “Not to mention the antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients you’ll also get from them.”
If you’re tossing and turning instead of floating away to dreamland, melatonin might be a good tool to add to your sleep arsenal. But if waking up in the middle of the night is your trouble, melatonin won’t be very helpful, as it eases the transition from wakefulness to sleep but does not promote staying asleep.
Anytime you use a supplement, you want to take possible side effects into consideration. One known side effect of taking melatonin is grogginess the morning after. “Side effects would most likely occur if you’re taking too much [melatonin],” says Glassman. “Another common complaint is that it doesn’t work. But it’s important to keep in mind that adding it to your daily routine is meant to regulate your sleep and wake cycles. It’s not a magic pill to make you fall asleep.”
There is no research on melatonin’s possible long-term side effects to general health. The long-term research that has been done focuses on cause and effect and does not look at other aspects of health impacted by the hormone. The short-term research that has been done bounces back and forth between its positive effects and potential negative effects to the body. For instance, a Clinical Investigation report found that melatonin could cause dizziness, fatigue, headache, or nausea, but then concluded that even taking melatonin in extremely large doses had no major negative effect on health.
Melatonin & Children
Another study in the same research journal, Clinical Investigation, recommends that pregnant and breastfeeding women do not take the hormone. Also, the Pediatric Journal of Medicine raises concerns about the unknown effects of melatonin on infants and adolescents, especially in light of the lack of long-term research.
Melatonin & General Health
Melatonin is now being studied in research trials as a health-promoting supplement, specifically as it relates to immunity. That’s because the sleep-wake cycle, which melatonin controls, is such a powerful factor in how diseases react in the body. For example, research in the journal Neuro-Chirurgie proposes that the hormone has therapeutic potential.
If you are a healthy adult who wants to use melatonin for occasional sleeplessness, speak with your doctor before giving it a go.