With so many people suffering from insomnia, sleep onset disorders, or just wondering “why can’t I sleep,” it’s no surprise that there are plenty of products claiming to be the solution.
Melatonin has the distinction of being a non-prescription supplement, available over the counter, with minimal side effects. Depending who you ask, melatonin is offered as a treatment for:
- Jet lag
- Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Backwards sleeping patterns for night shift workers
- Helping sleep after surgery and hospital stays
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
But just what is melatonin, and does really do what some claim?
The main idea behind melatonin supplements is that by fixing your body’s natural sleep rhythm, you will sleep better. Also known as your circadian rhythm, this is the biological process that lets you feel awake during the day, sleepy at night, and then the same thing all over again.
Whether or not you take melatonin supplements, melatonin is a part of sleep – it occurs naturally in your body.
In a perfect sleep pattern, your body receives natural cues to be awake during the day. The primarily cue is sunlight, and this stops melatonin production by your brain. At night time, darkness tells you to feel tired, so melatonin production is ramped up. That’s why melatonin is sometimes called the ‘Dracula’ hormone: it only comes out at night.
The problem is, in a sleep pattern that’s been disturbed with jet lag, stress, or insomnia, your body no longer produces melatonin at the right time. This leaves you groggy during the day and unable to sleep at night.
Skip this section if you don’t want the gritty details about melatonin and your brain.
The process all starts with your eye and with light.
From your eye’s retina run nerve signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus contains the supra-chiasmatic nucleus (the SCN), which is devoted to sending out either sleep or alertness signals. These signals are sent to various areas in the brain that regulate temperature, hormones, and other functions.
If your eye receives no sunlight, then the SCN sends a message to your brain’s pineal gland, a tiny, pea-sized section which is dormant during the day.
With this signal, the pineal gland begins to product N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, or as we know it, melatonin. On an average day, the pineal will start producing melatonin at around dusk, and the melatonin will remain in the system for about 12 hours, or until strong daylight reaches the eye once again.
When the eye is exposed to light, the SCN sends signals to stimulate wakefulness, like producing cortisol, increasing temperature, and stopping melatonin production.
We’ve all probably heard from an aunt, or co-worker, or friend that tried melatonin and said it’s a miracle. In order to sift out fluke from fact, we’ll look to some scientific studies.
For the most part, the results have been disappointing for people with acute insomnia, or other sleep problems. In most studies, no significant improvement was found in:
- sleep quality
- time to fall asleep
- time spent asleep
Test subjects had just as much benefit from taking a placebo. The study authors conclude that “there is no evidence that melatonin is effective in treating secondary sleep disorders or sleep disorders accompanying sleep restriction, such as jet lag and shiftwork disorder.”
But don’t replace your melatonin with Tic-Tacs just yet. It wouldn’t be science if there weren’t different results.
Another recent study out of Brazil found that, although melatonin is far from a miracle solution, it can offer some sleep aid. They found that it did help with:
- sleep quality
- time to fall asleep
- time spent asleep
Other studies still showed that melatonin’s true power is in overcoming disruptions in sleep schedules. This can include things like jet lag, night shifts, and so on. Other evidence indicates that it may help people with reduced natural melatonin levels – this can include seniors and those suffering from schizophrenia.
Still more studies indicate that melatonin may have particular usefulness for senior’s with insomnia, or that it may help otherwise healthy people fall asleep easier. But, this again is contrasted by still more studies that show that any reduction in the time to fall asleep is limited to just a few minutes.
What can we make of these conflicting reports?
The fact is, if it takes this many conflicting studies to show even a tiny benefit to melatonin supplements, then the effects can’t be that profound. The effect may be so minor that it only appears as a slight, statistical improvement, not one that you would feel on a personal level.
That being said, melatonin is not a prescription drug, and has relatively few side affects. Since the risks are low (in terms cost and side-effects), it may be worth it to try. But this, unfortunately, is not a wonder-pill.
How to Take It
Melatonin can be taken a variety of different times and amounts, with each producer offering their own suggestions. Typically, the melatonin tablets are taken between half-an-hour and one hour before desired sleep time.
Some people like to add their melatonin to their sleep rituals, including it with a warm bath, herbal tea, and relaxation before bed.
One of the biggest reasons that melatonin is such a popular sleep aid is its relative lack of side effects. Of course, anything you put in your body will have effects and side effects, but compared to prescription sleep aids, the risks are very minor. Melatonin is not habit forming, and the fact that it occurs naturally in the body is also reassuring for some people.
Some melatonin side effects that have been reported are:
- Vivid dreams
- Drowsiness if taken during the day
- Lower body temperature
- Sluggishness in the morning
- Blood pressure changes
The Bottom Line
Melatonin may help people that have had their sleep patterns messed up through jet lag, night shifts, or other external causes. It may help otherwise healthy people sleep better.
It’s safe, and it might work or might not work for you. So, in the words of a very wise man: “it couldn’t hurt.”