If you've ever struggled with insomnia, you've probably considered melatonin.
One of the most widely-used sleep supplements, melatonin is famous not only because it's easy to find but because we consider it "natural." But before you start a regular melatonin routine, it's worth knowing how melatonin functions in the body, where melatonin is naturally, and the effects of human-engineered melatonin supplements.
Melatonin is a popular sleep supplement. But is it as effective and safe as they say?
Although our bodies produce melatonin naturally, synthetic blends may not function in the same way.
Experts suggest caution.
How Does Melatonin Work?
Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep. Our bodies naturally produce it throughout the day. The primary factor affecting our production of melatonin is light, or rather light and dark cycles. As the sun begins to set during late afternoon or early evening, our melatonin levels increase, causing feelings of sleepiness. As we sleep, the hormone continues to rise, peaking between 2:00 am to 4:00 am. But as the sun rises and we wake, melatonin levels decrease. Even night-shift workers who work in bright lighting produce more melatonin at night.
Sources of Melatonin
While melatonin is most commonly produced by the body, it has been found in slight quantities in foods, and particularly in wine.
Our brains produce melatonin in the pineal gland. The amino acid tryptophan is the primary building block for melatonin. But you may not have known that we also ingest melatonin from foods.
The brain isn't the only place to find natural melatonin. Some foods contain melatonin. However, the amounts present are rarely enough to make a noticeable difference in your body's melatonin levels. Potatoes, tomatoes, almonds, and walnuts have traces of melatonin. Out of these, walnuts have been proven to increase levels of melatonin in the blood.
But although your diet won't provide much melatonin, you can increase your consumption of tryptophan. Since tryptophan is vital for melatonin production, eating foods rich in this amino acid can stimulate production naturally. Foods with notable levels of tryptophan include:
Interestingly, scientists have found that wine appears to have remarkable amounts of melatonin. Having a relaxing glass of wine before bed may now have scientific support. As grapes ripen, they produce more melatonin. Levels are highest just after seeds have developed. A common fungicide influences melatonin levels. Spraying grapes with benzothiadiazole, fungicide farmers use to prevent mold, eventually resulted in wines with higher concentrations of melatonin than grapes grown without benzothiadiazole.
What's in Melatonin Supplements?
Now that we've looked at sources of naturally occurring melatonin, what about melatonin supplements? There are two types of melatonin on the market. The first is synthetically produced melatonin from a lab. The second type uses natural melatonin from animals or animal by-products. The majority of both supplements is a filler ingredient, whether in pill, gummy, or drink mix form.
Are Melatonin Supplements Safe?
Since most people who take melatonin supplements can't gain enough from their diet, they turn to supplements. But although melatonin is a "natural" ingredient, do synthetic forms function differently? And are there any side effects?
Melatonin is largely harmless. The supplement itself doesn't raise any significant cause for concern, although it may not be suitable for children or teens. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise some caution when taking melatonin. There are two significant issues when it comes to melatonin: a lack of regulations and dosage.
An Unregulated Market
Because melatonin is widely believed to be a safe and natural sleep aid, the market is relatively free from scrutiny. That's because the FDA categorizes melatonin as a dietary supplement.
But in Europe, most countries classify melatonin as a prescription drug. This classification is reasonable since, like estrogen or testosterone, melatonin is a hormone. We don't yet know the full effects of synthetic melatonin. But the FDA's supplement classification allows companies to sell melatonin at any dosage they choose and doesn't require any overdose warnings on labels.
While melatonin isn't fatal, taking too much for too long can be harmful and produce adverse side effects. It's also worth mentioning that not everyone's body will react the same way. A specific melatonin dose may work wonders for a friend but have hardly any effect on you, or vice versa.
Many companies sell melatonin at doses far higher than the recommended amount. An MIT study conducted in 2001 found that just 0.3 mg is an effective dose of melatonin. Even when accounting for different body sizes, researchers only recommend a range from 0.3 to 1 mg. But it's not unusual to see melatonin sold in 5 mg tablets or higher.
Misconceptions about dosage can lead to melatonin overuse. Common sense says that taking more of medication will increase its effects. Unfortunately, increasing melatonin won't necessarily put you to sleep faster or enhance the quality of your sleep. Instead, it could do the opposite, causing rebound insomnia or confusing your body's circadian rhythm.
Negative Side Effects
Taking melatonin in small doses doesn't appear to have adverse side effects. It's when people take too much that they begin to experience problems. Too much melatonin either disrupts the body's circadian rhythm or resets it at the wrong time. You could have difficulty falling asleep at bedtime or feel unusually tired during the day. Contrary to popular belief, melatonin can make you tired the next day. Taking it over a long period also desensitizes your brain, so you'll need more to feel the same effects.
Since people believe melatonin to be safe and natural, some even give the hormone to their children. But since melatonin is a hormone, there's an even higher risk of adverse side effects for children. Too much melatonin can disrupt puberty, menstrual cycles, and even natural hormone production. Since dosages sold over the counter are often higher than recommended, be especially cautious about doses for children.
When Should I Use Melatonin?
Most people are surprised to hear that melatonin can have any adverse side effects at all. But used sparingly and appropriately, it’s a mild sleep aid with minimal risk. While small amounts of melatonin can treat mild insomnia, this hormone supplement is most useful for specific sleep disorders.
Melatonin's ability to reset your internal clock makes it very useful for people who work irregular hours, need to get a disrupted sleep schedule back on track, or are dealing with jet lag. People struggling with circadian rhythm disorders can also benefit from melatonin supplements, including those with:
- Delayed sleep phase disorder
- Advanced sleep phase disorder
- Shift work disorder
While melatonin is not a substitute for medical attention, it can alleviate symptoms and help treat mild conditions. Researchers continue to explore ways we can use melatonin, including as a treatment for ADHD in children, certain forms of cancer, and multiple sclerosis.
Melatonin has significant potential and when used sparingly, can help with minor sleep problems. But if you start to see side effects, you may be taking too much. Don't rely on one supplement to cure your sleep problems. Take steps to create a healthy sleep routine.