It’s 2 a.m. and you’re lying in bed not sleeping. Instead, you’ve been counting sheep, downing mugs of warm milk and attempting to read that snooze fest of a book that’s been gathering dust on your nightstand. Yet here you are — still awake and not happy about it.
So you do what any exhausted, bleary-eyed insomniac might and turn to the internet for a remedy. Soon enough, the Google algorithm gods deliver what seems like the perfect answer to your sleepless nights: melatonin.
What is melatonin?
More than 3.1 million Americans take melatonin supplements as a sleep aid, but melatonin is actually a hormone that your body produces on its own.
The pineal gland at the base of your brain secretes melatonin to help regulate when you feel sleepy and when you feel awake. Melatonin production is triggered by darkness but then shuts off when you’re exposed to light again.
“Melatonin is basically a part of our circadian clock,” explains Dr. Bertil Hille, a University of Washington School of Medicine physiology and biophysics professor. “That clock counts 24 hours and tells us when it’s night and day.”
That said, your body doesn’t always produce melatonin like clockwork. Classic sleep disruptors like coffee, late-night exercise and lights from screens in your bedroom can delay or inhibit it, while something like seasonal affective disorder might be a result of your body secreting too much.
Do melatonin supplements work for sleep?
Given what scientists know about melatonin and its role in managing sleep, it seems like a supplement should help you slip into dreamland no problem, right? Well, yes and no.
According to guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP), research on the effectiveness of melatonin is either inconclusive or not strong enough to recommend it as a treatment for chronic insomnia.
This could be due to a number of things, from the unregulated nature of the supplements industry — resulting in inconsistent dosage and formulation — to how quickly synthetic melatonin is released into your bloodstream.
“Melatonin doesn’t live that long in your blood, so ideally, you’d have a slow-release melatonin pill that would release it all the time and then abruptly stop,” Hille explains.
A better bet for chronic insomnia, the ACP says, is cognitive behavior therapy. You can also look at minimizing any potential environmental and behavioral factors that might be messing with your sleep hygiene, like watching TV right before bedtime (guilty) and drinking coffee too late in the day (also guilty).
If you just have a random sleepless night every now and again, though, it might be worth a try. Some studies noted a mild improvement for participants using melatonin. Just be sure to talk to your doctor and stop using it if you don’t notice an improvement in your sleep.
When should you take melatonin supplements?
If you’re mulling a melatonin supplement, another important thing to know is when to take it.
In his lab’s research, Hille says he’s noticed that melatonin production doesn’t actually ramp up until a few hours after the sun goes down. For example, if sunset is at 6 p.m., your body’s melatonin levels won’t jump up until around 9 p.m.
“We see that melatonin is low, low, low after dark and then it goes up a few hours later and stays high until the moment when the lights turn on again,” Hille explains. “If you wanted to use melatonin, this tells us how you should mimic the biological way.”
In essence, timing is everything.
If you plan on using melatonin to help you sleep, it’s best to take it two or three hours before your bedtime. On the flip side, if you find yourself unable to sleep in the middle of the night, keep in mind that popping a melatonin at midnight won’t necessarily have immediate results.
Is it safe to take melatonin supplements?
While melatonin supplements are often marketed as a natural sleep aid, remember that natural doesn’t always mean safe.
This is why it’s important to talk to your doctor to help determine which dosage is best for you. If anything, always read and follow the dosage instructions for the particular supplement you plan on taking.
According to the National Institutes of Health, short-term use of melatonin supplements is fine for most people, with potential side effects being headaches, dizziness, nausea and daytime drowsiness. That said, potential side effects of long-term melatonin use are still unclear.
For melatonin in particular, it’s best to seek out the advice of a medical professional if you have epilepsy, are on blood thinners or are pregnant or breastfeeding. There are also some safety concerns for melatonin use by older adults (melatonin can stay active in their systems longer) as well as children, who may experience a disruption in hormonal development and puberty.
Whether you decide to melatonin or not to melatonin, here’s wishing you a good night of sleep.