Everyone wants to sleep better. You know to shut off your phone and other tech before bed and maybe do some pre-bed stretching, but sometimes you need just a little more help. If you’re hunting for an over-the-counter sleep remedy, melatonin might be a good option. Here’s what you need to know before trying it, according to experts.
A good night’s sleep is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. If you struggle to get enough shut-eye through the night, you might be tempted to take melatonin for sleep. But did you know that you already have melatonin in your body? According to the Sleep Health Foundation, melatonin is a natural hormone made by the body’s pineal gland. The pineal gland is the size of a grain of rice and located just above the middle of the brain.
During the day the pineal gland is inactive, meaning levels of the hormone are barely detectable. However, when the sun goes down, the pineal gland ‘turns on’ and begins to produce melatonin – typically around 9pm. As a result, the hormone’s levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel sleepier. For about 12 hours – throughout the night – those blood levels stay elevated, before the light of a new day when they fall back to low daytime levels.
While the supplement may be taken to help treat sleep problems, it’s not a cure for insomnia; it can help induce sleep, but it won’t help you stay asleep. Melatonin can be effective for conditions such as jet lag, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and controlling sleep patterns for people who work night shifts.
If you respond well to the supplement, there’s no reason you can’t continue to take it long-term without any negative side effects, but relying on it too heavily could have a negative effect. “It can de-sensitise your receptors so they’re no longer responsive to lower doses of melatonin,” says sleep specialist, Dr Andrew Westwood. “Then, if you come off [the supplement], you might have difficulty sleeping – and require more and more [of it] to fall asleep.”
As melatonin is a prescribed medication in Australia, the range of doses varies from 0.5mg to 5mg. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, the most commonly available preparation in Australia contains 2mg. It is a slow release form to last throughout the night, much like the naturally occurring melatonin.
According to Dr Sanjeev Kothare, who specialises in sleep disturbances, there are no short term melatonin side effects, but some individuals experience headaches, nightmares or lingering sedation the next morning. It’s not clear whether there are long-term side effects, because the majority of studies are of short duration, often less than six months, adds Dr Rowley.
Melatonin works on several parts of the brain and body, including the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which are involved in pubertal development. Parents should discuss their child’s sleep problem with a paediatrician. “The hormone is naturally reduced during puberty and changing this pattern with an unregulated compound and without supervision can potentially result in harm,” warns endocrinologist Dr Brunilda Nazario. “Instead, it’s critical to try and determine the cause of lack of sleep, and eliminate any contributing factors to help correct his or her sleep problems.”
Before you start taking any supplements for sleep, know that the problem could be solved another way. There are various treatments to help normalise sleep including ensuring good sleep hygiene. Dr Nazario recommends going to bed at the same time every night, removing stimulants that emit blue light (turn off those screens and put them far away from your bed), and avoiding late afternoon or evening naps. “You may want to start with other natural treatments, including chamomile and hops tea or valerian root,” she suggests.
This article originally appeared on Reader’s Digest.