When all you can do is count the minutes and hours that have gone by since you last looked at the clock in a desperate bid to get enough sleep, you may have felt like you would try anything. Is melatonin a good choice for sleep problems? Let’s see what it is and whether it could help you fall asleep. But does melatonin help you sleep?
What Is Melatonin and How Does It Work?
Melatonin is a hormone made by a tiny gland in your skull called the pineal gland. The gland isn’t part of your brain but relies on signals from your hypothalamus. In a complicated dance, your eyes sense lowered light levels at night, leading to nerve impulses traveling through the hypothalamus and the pineal gland.
The hypothalamus is the source of the body’s circadian rhythm, which sets the changes our mind and body go through regarding sleep, eating, and metabolic processes throughout the day. This circadian rhythm is about 24 hours in length.
Once melatonin is released, you don’t just “fall asleep” like you would with a sedative. Instead, it prepares the body for sleep by dialing down the sympathetic nervous system. The result is a state of calm and an enhanced ability to fall asleep naturally.
Melatonin does not regulate sleep and wakefulness by itself. The light of day signals the pineal gland to make less melatonin, while darkness has the opposite effect. The peak of melatonin secretion in humans is between 2 and 4 am. Once the melatonin level drops, you are triggered to awaken in the morning.
Because melatonin readies the body and mind for sleep, it tends to be part of regulating sleep and wakefulness. However, if you take a trip across time zones or do a lot of shift work, your melatonin secretion does not necessarily match well with the amount of daylight outside. Your sleep would be naturally disrupted.
Melatonin secretion depends on the amount of light your eyes are exposed to. Lowered light levels affect the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus. The SCN is the primary regulator of your biological clock.
If you try to sleep when your melatonin level is very low, you will have a more difficult time than if they are high. Melatonin levels also decline with age, affecting sleep in older individuals.
Does Melatonin Really Help with Sleep?
Melatonin is a natural hormone. It can also be found as a standalone supplement used for sleep or combined with other over-the-counter sleep aids. The supplement can help you sleep by overriding your natural melatonin patterns.
Melatonin has a moderately long history of success as a sleep aid, with numerous studies published since it was discovered in 1958. The first patent for a melatonin supplement was awarded in 1987. Since then, billions of hormone doses have been taken for sleep issues.
One meta-analysis summarizing 19 studies on this dietary supplement shows that it significantly shortens the time it takes to fall asleep, increases total sleep duration, and improves sleep quality.
The dose range is wide and depends on how you respond to it. Start low and take a higher dose if you need it. Melatonin comes in capsules, gummies, tablets, and chewable tablets. Start with 0.5 to 1 milligram and increase to a maximum of around 5 milligrams taken in the evening.
Like any medication, it will not work immediately, so give it time to work. You can take melatonin while traveling to help reset your sleep-wake cycle and avoid jet lag. Shift workers can switch shifts more easily when using melatonin supplementation before bedtime.
Side effects of taking too much can include nightmares and daytime sleepiness. This supplement tends to do best when the dose is at the lowest effective dose for you.
Lifestyle Changes to Increase Melatonin Production
If you want to increase your melatonin production naturally, you can do some things. A significant factor in improving nighttime melatonin levels is in reducing screen time.
If you reduce your screen time – exposure to blue light in cell phones, laptops, and tablets. You can wear blue-light blockers or change the settings on your devices to reduce the amount of blue light you see.
Other options for enhancing melatonin include:
- Dimming the nights toward evening to reduce ambient light
- Get lots of daytime sun so your melatonin levels will be reduced during the day
- Reduce caffeine before bedtime
- Reduce stress and try to relax or meditate each night
- Eat foods high in melatonin or its precursors
Surprisingly, foods you can eat actually contain melatonin or its precursors. You may decide to eat these foods in the evening to enhance your ability to sleep.
Food sources of melatonin include the following common foods:
- Nuts and many seeds (including sprouted legumes or sprouted seeds)
- Mushrooms (lion’s mane and Reishi)
You can also eat foods that are higher in the amounts of the amino acid that eventually metabolizes into melatonin. This precursor, tryptophan, comes from eggs, canned tuna, whole milk and other dairy products, poultry, oatmeal, and nuts or seeds. Try eating these foods before bedtime.
Sleep supplements often contain melatonin and a few other substances (like herbs or magnesium) that have been found to assist in gaining sleep.
Many herbal supplements, with or without melatonin, are excellent and helpful to induce sleep. Don’t forget that two different supplements might both have melatonin in them. Read labels to make sure.
Types of Melatonin Supplements Available
The over-the-counter market for melatonin is a wide-open field where many choices of melatonin can be found. These are available without a prescription.
Remember to take care buying this supplement without expert advice. There are chewable, liquid, capsule-based, and gummy melatonin options sold over-the-counter. Children can take melatonin, too, but the amount is lower.
The prescription drug Rozerem is an agonist drug that activates the body’s melatonin receptors. By doing this, it can mimic melatonin in your bloodstream without actually being the same chemical structure as melatonin.
Pros and Cons of Different Types of Melatonin Supplements
The advantage of melatonin over prescription and over-the-counter sleep medicine is that it is not a sedative. Few people feel sedated or have morning fatigue after taking it.
Taking melatonin when needed for jet lag, shift work, or insomnia has a few cons. Remember that the industry responsible for making it is not regulated, so you could get inferior products.
In addition, it is increasingly recognized that we don’t know much about melatonin, in general, so you perhaps shouldn’t take it unless you need it.
There is nothing in melatonin supplementation that is inherently addictive, making it a better alternative to most prescription sleep medications like Ambien or Sonata (both of which have the potential for addiction).
On the other hand, if you take it every day and then don’t, you may notice poorer sleep because your pineal gland cannot make enough melatonin on its own.
The onset of action of melatonin is about 30 to 60 minutes. It will not feel like a sedative when you take it, and you won’t feel suddenly groggy. Its action is more like becoming gradually calmer and sleepier.
One of the first uses of melatonin was with those who had jet lag. When you cross several time zones, your pineal gland will take up to 4 to 5 days to catch up. In the meantime, you can use melatonin at the bedtime of your new destination so you can sleep and function better at your new location.