The use of melatonin for a good nightâ€™s sleep is on the rise over the past decade. As people increasingly understand the importance of quality sleep in their overall wellness, as well as our surging interest in looking for more natural sleep solutions, the use of this dietary supplement is hotter than ever. But just what is melatonin? Is it safe? Is it effective? Iâ€™m weighing in today with my best advice.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Made from the essential amino acid tryptophan, melatonin works to regulate our sleep and wake cycles. Melatonin is generated and released in response to darkness, and triggers sleepiness. When it is light, melatonin production is inhibited, thus, signaling wakefulness.
Because melatonin is present in some foods, such as tart cherries, it can be sold over the counter as a dietary supplement. Most melatonin supplements are generally synthesized in a lab.
Why Use Melatonin?
Melatonin is used for numerous conditions, ranging from fibromyalgia to irritable bowel syndrome. However, it is most commonly used as a sleep remedy, according to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, including the following conditions:
- Jet lag
- Shift-work disorder (trouble adjusting oneâ€™s sleep schedule when working at night and sleeping during daylight hours)
- Difficulty associated with establishing night and day cycles in blind persons
Does it Really Work?
Reports of this supplementâ€™s effectiveness on sleep issues are mixed. Pretty good research shows that melatonin improves some symptoms of jet lag, such as adjusting to a new schedule. It probably works by helping people to reset their biological clock, act as a sedative, and block wakeful circuits in the nervous system. In addition, research shows that it may help reduce anxiety, but not all studies have found this effect. Melatonin has had mixed results for helping those with insomnia related to shift-work sleep disorder, as well as sleep problems in the elderly. However, it has shown to help â€œMonday morning fatigueâ€, hospitalization sleep issues, and sleep problems among people with medical conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, head injuries, schizophrenia, Alzheimerâ€™s and Parkinsonâ€™s.
Is Melatonin Safe?
As with any dietary supplement, itâ€™s important to consult your physician before taking it so you can be evaluated for possible contraindications. It does appear to be safe for short term use, though there is more research needed on safety of long-term use. The current dosage is 1-5 mg about 30 minutes before bedtime, though this has not been thoroughly validated by research.
Melatonin may be unsafe for children, due to concerns that the hormone could disturb adolescent development, and pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid using it. The supplement also may worsen symptoms of depression.
So, at the end of the day, if youâ€™re a healthy adult (and not pregnant or nursing) and youâ€™re troubled with jet lag or insomnia, melatonin may be of moderate help and is likely to be safe in the short term. But itâ€™s always a good idea to discuss it with your health care practitioner before you start turning to it regularly.
Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN August 2015; updated on July 25, 2019.
For more nutrition information on supplements, check out Sharonâ€™s advice:
What Supplements Should I Take While Eating a Plant-Based Diet?
Meeting Your Nutrient Needs on a Plant-Based Diet