How safe are melatonin supplements?

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How safe are melatonin supplements?

More and more people who suffer from insufficient sleep are turning to using melatonin supplements. Discovered in 1958, melatonin is a hormone our body makes to help regulate the circadian rhythm or our natural body clock. It is estimated that more than 3 million adults and almost a half-million children take melatonin for sleep-deprivation. Growth of melatonin supplements has been brisk – In 2018, $425 million was spent by U.S. consumers which was up from $259 million in 2012. In fact up to 20% of people who have tried a natural sleep remedy within the last 12 months, have chosen melatonin supplements, making them the most popular choice over other sleep aids.

How does melatonin work?

All of us already naturally make melatonin. Its purpose is to regular our sleep-wake cycles and most of us should need to take a supplement. The melatonin our body produces is sort of like a light switch; at the end of the day as daylight fades, the brain’s pineal gland gradually increases levels of melatonin production about one to three hours before bedtime. This is what causes sleepiness signaling time for bed. When the morning light appears, this gives a signal to the brain to reduce melatonin production allowing us to wake up and become more alert. Our brain can only make melatonin in dim light – bright light will stop its release. Think of melatonin as a sleep regulator and not as a sleep initiator.

How effective are melatonin supplements?

It was in the 1980’s that supplements of melatonin were advertised to be a sleep aid for those with insomnia.  But studies have only been able to show that melatonin supplements perform mildly at best in inducing sleep. One review of 15 studies of 284 healthy adults found that those who took melatonin before bed fell asleep 3.0 minutes faster on average and slept eight minutes longer. However, everyone is different in how their body responds to melatonin supplements.

What is agreed upon by most sleep experts is that taking melatonin supplements can have a big effect on treating circadian rhythm disorders like delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. This disorder is when a person’s body’s natural melatonin levels fail to rise at a normal time making it hard to get to sleep and hard to wake up in the morning. A study published in PLOS Medicine studied 116 men with this disorder and found that taking 0.5 milligrams of fast-release melatonin one hour before bedtime at least five nights a week fell asleep 34 minutes earlier on average, slept more soundly, and normalized their sleep patterns within four weeks.

There are other ways taking melatonin supplements may be effective for some people.  When taken at the right time, in the right dose, and for a short duration, melatonin can repair a sleep schedule thrown off by jet lag or a long weekend of staying up long past your regular bedtime. Caution is advised however, if taking melatonin makes you sleep, to not get behind the wheel of a vehicle to drive. 

For many of us as we age, our body will produce less melatonin as daylight fades. If a person wants to try taking melatonin supplements, experts recommend 0.5 to 2 milligrams taken an hour before bedtime. If traveling across time zones or if you are a night owl, it is recommended to take a small dose of 0.5 milligrams about five hours before desired bedtime to stimulate the brain’s natural production of melatonin.

How safe are melatonin supplements?

Melatonin supplements are generally safe and can be helpful for many people. But, people should not take them thinking they will magically make them fall asleep within a few minutes.  What we do is that melatonin supplements are safe for adults to use in the short-term, but because there haven’t been any long-term studies in humans, the long-term safety is unknown.

When a person takes smaller doses of melatonin – 0.5 milligrams or less – the supplements produce levels similar to what the brain makes naturally. If a person takes a larger dose, such as 3 milligram, melatonin levels may rise to almost 10 times higher than normal.  What we don’t know yet is how much is too much to be taking.

Although melatonin has no serious side effects, possible side effects include extreme drowsiness, dizziness, headache, and nausea.  The supplements are not recommended for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.  There is little research on melatonin’s safety in young children – it is also advised to not give melatonin or any sleep medication to children under the age of 2.

It’s also important to know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate melatonin supplements. Because dietary supplements are not regulated as much as prescription drugs, quality can vary wildly form bottle to bottle. One study found that 71% of melatonin supplements did not contain exactly what was listed on the label. Some had more than four times as much melatonin as they claimed and 26% contained the powerful neurotransmitter serotonin. 

Anyone with hypertension, diabetes, or epilepsy, should always discuss with the doctor before taking a melatonin supplement – the supplement can interact negatively with medications for these conditions.