Can Melatonin Supplements Improve Sleep?

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Question:

My husband had trouble sleeping the last few months of his life, and the doctor prescribed 1mg of melatonin. Despite being on several other medications and not wanting to add another, he did anyway, and would sleep comfortably through 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. I just wanted to make sure there were no cons to taking melatonin for sleep?

Answer:

First, it’s important to make it very clear that melatonin is not a drug. Rather, it is a hormone produced by a pea-sized gland nestled between the two hemispheres of the brain called the pineal gland.

The pineal glands of young people produce copious amounts of melatonin. However, after the age of 40, production slows down. This reduction in melatonin production may be why younger people tend to have an easier time falling asleep and staying asleep compared to older individuals.

We know that melatonin plays an important role in the regulation of sleep. This has led to some people taking melatonin supplements in an attempt to improve their sleep. Unfortunately, simply adding melatonin supplements to your diet without considering the root cause and circumstances of your sleep problems is unlikely to improve your sleep beyond the benefits associated with the placebo effect.

Natural melatonin versus synthetic melatonin

Natural melatonin is made from the extracts of the pineal glands of animals. Today, melatonin tends to be synthetic and is manufactured under laboratory control. Synthetic melatonin is identical to the melatonin produced by the pineal gland, and the possibility of contamination is greatly reduced.

How melatonin influences the body clock

Melatonin helps regulate 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.

How melatonin can help fight jet lag

Melatonin supplements may 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 help lessen these symptoms.

Is melatonin effective?

There is currently insufficient evidence that melatonin supplements are an effective method for treating or managing insomnia. More evidence exists to suggest that melatonin can help reduce the symptoms of jet lag — particularly when traveling in an easterly direction and when crossing more than five time zones.

Melatonin safety

A 2016 review found that short-term use of melatonin supplements was safe, with only mild side effects such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea being reported. Long-term use was also associated with only mild adverse effects that were similar to those reported by those who took a placebo. The review was unable to find any studies that indicated melatonin supplements could lead to serious adverse side effects, although the authors stated that the long-term safety of melatonin in children and adolescents requires further investigation.

Melatonin regulation

In the United States, melatonin is classified as a dietary supplement. This means that it is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This lack of oversight means that what you think you are buying may be very different from what you are getting.

A 2017 study investigated the content of 30 commercial melatonin supplements. It found that melatonin content ranged from -83 percent to +478 percent of the labelled content. Furthermore, eight of the supplements contained serotonin — a controlled substance used in the treatment of several neurological disorders.

Melatonin precautions

Since taking melatonin supplements may increase sleepiness, you should avoid driving or operating heavy machinery after taking melatonin. The hormone can also interact with medications such as blood thinners, immunosuppressants, birth control, and diabetes medications — so it’s always best to talk to your doctor before taking melatonin supplements.

In summary

Although melatonin may help regulate your sleep when traveling across time zones, there is little conclusive evidence supporting its effectiveness as a sleep aid.

Clinically-validated treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) would likely be a better option than taking a melatonin supplement. If you are concerned about your sleep, speak with your doctor.

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You should know: The answer above provides general health information that is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment recommendations from a qualified healthcare professional.

Answered by Martin Reed