Melatonin - The Natural Sleeping Pill

Patient Expert

A friend of mine recently wrote me the following letter asking for more information on melatonin. I dedicate this article to her:

M.H. wrote:

"My husband had trouble sleeping the last few months of his life, and the doc prescribed 1mg of melatonin. He didn't want to put Jim on any more drugs. He was already taking insulin for diabetes, and something for blood pressure, and others I've forgotten for now. After taking the melatonin he was asleep and comfortable for the night.

After he died I was having trouble sleeping (something I'd never experienced before). I decided to try the melatonin I had left. It worked very well, and now I take it only once in a while when I can't sleep."


Melatonin - the wonder drug of the decade. Or is it? In the first place, melatonin isn't a drug. It's a hormone produced by a pea-sized gland nestled between the two hemispheres of the brain.

This gland is called the pineal gland. The scientific name for melatonin is N-acetyl-5 methoxytryptamine. In the second place, the claims of miraculous cures for a wide range of complaints have never been proven.

Researchers became aware of its existence about four decades ago.

Melatonin is found in many different species from people to protozoa. It's presence in the lower life forms has lead scientists to believe that it has been a part of life since the beginnings of time.

The pineal glands of young people produce copious amounts of melatonin. However, after the age of forty, production slows down. This reduction in melatonin production is why younger people have an easier time to fall asleep and to stay asleep than the elderly.


Since researchers isolated the hormone melatonin, it has become available in tablet form as a food supplement that aids in sleep problems. Two grades are available -- natural and synthetic.

Natural melatonin, made from the extracts of the pineal glands of animals, usually sheep, is not necessarily of a better quality. It could contain impurities such as those that caused tryptophan supplements that were taken off the market several years ago.

Synthetic grade melatonin is manufactured under laboratory control. Measurements are exact so if the tablets are supposed to contain 3 mg. of melatonin, you can be sure that is what they contain. Synthetic melatonin is identical to the melatonin produced by the pineal gland, and the possibility of contamination is greatly reduced.


Melatonin in the body controls the circadian rhythm so we sleep at night and stay alert during daylight hours. The amount of light that reaches the eyes controls the amount of melatonin the pineal gland produces. Light slows production of the hormone, so on a bright sunny day, we are often alert and filled with energy.

On a dull, cloudy day when the house is full of dark shadows, we become more lethargic and sleepy. When evening falls and the lights go out, the pineal gland increases its production of melatonin. The hormone flows throughout the body and makes us sleepy. People in the northern areas of the world have to adjust to a different rhythm as some of their nights last for weeks. In polar regions, the animals have larger pineal glands to compensate for the many hours of darkness.


Melatonin tablets help reduce the effects of jet lag. Often, after a long flight, jet lag leaves you feeling overwhelmed with fatigue, sluggish, irritable, disoriented or nauseated. By regulating the time your body produces melatonin, you can lessen these symptoms.


All the publicity and hype about melatonin began with a book entitled The Melatonin Miracle, Nature's Age-Reversing, Disease- Fighting, Sex-Enhancing Hormone. The authors, William Regelson, MD, and Walter Pierpaoli, MD, are said to be leading medical researchers and key scientists at the forefront of melatonin research. The book was first published by The National Academy of Science and the New York Academy of Science.

In April of 1996, Pocket Books published The Melatonin Miracle as a mass market paperback. Some readers commented that the book read more like a public relations advertisement for melatonin instead of a scientific treatise on the hormone.

In the fall of 1996, Simon & Schuster published a second book on melatonin by Dr. Regelson entitled Superhormone Promise, Nature's Antidote to Aging. In this book, Regelson claimed that the hormone could reverse aging and extend life expectancy.

In a third book, Melatonin: Nature's Sleeping Pill, written by Ray Sahelian in 1997, the author, an authority on melatonin, attempts to separate the grains of truth from the chaff of hype in the melatonin publicity.

Magazines were quick to jump on the melatonin band wagon. "It's the hot sleeping pill, natural and cheap," Newsweek said in an August 1995 article. However, Salon Magazine, in July 1997 article said, "The hottest new wonder drug since Prozac is not a drug at all, but a mere dietary supplement with absolutely no proven medical applications, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration."

In an article entitled Melatonin Mania, Scientific American states some critics warn that the high doses of melatonin sometimes found in health food stores could be dangerous to some people. "Many researchers point out," the article continues, "that startling claims made for the substance are unsupported by studies on patients."

In Priorities, the magazine of the American Council on Science and Health, Dr. Victor Herbert and Dr. Ruth Kava call melatonin "the latest in a long series of alternative medicine miracles."


Researchers are indeed studying melatonin. Fred Turek, neurobiologist at Northwestern University in Illinois, in the February 1996 issue of Time Magazine is quoted as saying that some researchers have stepped over "the truth in advertising line." He also says that people are always eager for "quick snake-oil cures."

Richard Wurtman, a researcher at M.I.T. has spent many years in the study of melatonin. Although he sees "no controversy" about the hormone's ability to promote sleep, he says there is "no evidence" that it increases life expectancy.

Professor J. Arendt, an endocrinologist at the University of Surry in Great Britain says he has found no proof that melatonin slows aging. Nor is there any evidence that it cures other diseases such as AIDS or Alzheimer's.


What are some of these outrageous claims? Well, besides reversing aging, curing Alzheimer's and preventing AIDS, melatonin has also been credited with the ability to cure autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson's disease.

Use of this hormone is also said to ward off heart disease and breast cancer and slow the growth of tumors. There are also claims that melatonin bolsters the immune system and slows the growth of cataracts.

And while melatonin is performing all the above miracles, it will also improve your sex life! Pretty good for a simple hormone that comes from a gland the size of a pea.


Because there haven't been enough studies or research done, no one knows what adverse effects might occur from long term use. Short term effects noted by some users include vivid, frightening nightmares, headaches and mild depression, along with morning grogginess and a bit of confusion.

Although some mothers with cranky, over tired children might well be tempted to try melatonin, it should never be administered to children. Young bodies always have an abundance of the hormone, and it can increase the frequency and severity of seizures in children prone to this maladie.

In fact, unless there is an underlying reason like chronic insomnia or chronic fatigue syndrome, (when sleep is never restful) no one under 40 should need to take melatonin. It is wisest never to take melatonin except under medical supervision.


There is the possibility that increasing the amount of melatonin in the body might disrupt the body's own production of the hormone. Altering the amount of one hormone in the body often alters the body's own production of other hormones. In the case of increasing melatonin, the hormone prolactin may also increase. This causes enlarged breasts and decreases the sex drive, which completely negates the claim that melatonin enhances the sex life.

Melatonin is often administered in far too high a dosage. When this happens, the hormone remains in the blood stream and can cause daytime drowsiness, confusion and that headachy, hangover feeling. In some cases, too high a dose can even cause insomnia, the exact opposite of the result hoped for.

A dosage as small as one mg. or even less can cause drowsiness. Start with a very small amount and work your way up to a dosage that works for you. Never take more than you need, and take it only at bedtime.

Do not take a melatonin supplement:

  • if you are pregnant.
  • if you are nursing.
  • if you suffer from sever allergies or auto immune disease.
  • if you suffer from an immune system cancer.
  • if you are a woman trying to conceive.
  • if you suffer from a severe mental disease.
  • if you are taking steroid-type medication.
  • if you are taking MAO inhibitors.
  • if you suffer from epilepsy.


Ramona W. of Alberta, says she uses melatonin, valerian and tryptophan with no ill effects. She also takes large doses of vitamin B6. Ramona suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Teresa M. who lives in northern Ireland has been using melatonin for about two years. She says, "At first I was using 5 or 6 mgs. per night and suffering from the weirdest nightmares." When she reduced the dosage to 2.5 mgs. the dreams stopped. She also uses valerian. When she lived in the States, she took tryptophan until it was banned. "I found it quite effective," she says, "and would still be using it if not for the ban."

Claudia W. says taking melatonin really "knocked her out." If she didn't get at least ten hours sleep after taking it, she was sedated all day.

Several other people I spoke with reported good results using melatonin, either alone or with other sleep products for their sleep problems. They reported very few adverse effects except for vivid dreams and some daytime drowsiness.


Peter Davey, a northern Alberta druggist, says the only complaint he has heard about melatonin is the fact that people can no longer get it. It was banned in Canada several years ago because the Canadian government felt that not enough research had been done on the hormone. Mr. Davey couldn't recall hearing of any adverse effects from taking the hormone.

A second Alberta druggist says people won't talk about melatonin because it is banned here. They know sale of the food supplement is illegal in Canada. However, he claims there are still places where people can buy it. He says buying it this way is a very dangerous practice because of the lack of controls as to strength and purity.

Wonder drug? No. A safe sleeping pill? Possibly. Only time, and more research will tell.