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Using Melatonin to Improve Sleep

Mary Lucas, RN
Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 5/5/2020

Are you reading this at night — the glow of your cell phone lighting your face, after tossing and turning and finally resigning to insomnia? There’s a good chance millions of Americans are awake with you. As many as 70 million have sleep disorders, including everything from insomnia to sleep apnea and night terrors.

Your pursuit of a good night’s rest may be something new — a side effect of stressors that keep your mind churning through the night. Or, it could be chronic — something you’ve learned to accept over the months and years of sleepless nights. In either case, missing out on quality sleep can have deleterious effects.

Melatonin is one solution marketed as a “natural” way to treat insomnia and other sleep problems. But as with all over-the-counter supplements, you’re right to be skeptical. Supplements don’t go through the rigorous process of testing and approval like pharmaceutical drugs, and some are quite simply a total waste of money.

So, how does melatonin measure up? Should you spend your money on it or are you better off buying a new book to pass the evening hours?

Melatonin: What You Need to Know

  • Melatonin is a hormone your body naturally produces to ready it for sleep every night.
  • Over the past ten years, a considerable body of research has demonstrated the potential sleep benefits of supplemental melatonin.
  • Melatonin supplements may be useful for people who work night shifts, struggle with insomnia or other sleep disorders, or who suffer from jet lag.
  • Less is more when it comes to supplements, as they increase your blood melatonin levels far beyond the natural levels.
  • Melatonin is only part of your options when it comes to improving your sleep — take steps to ensure you’re creating the best environment for nightly sleep, every night.

The Basics of This Sleep Hormone

Melatonin is produced naturally by the pineal gland in the middle of the brain. It’s a vampire gland — inactive during the daylight, but busy in the evening hours. Around the time the sun sets, the pineal gland starts revving up. By 9pm, it’s releasing melatonin into the bloodstream, and you may begin to feel sleepy. That’s because melatonin regulates your sleep-wake cycles — levels rise, peaking around midnight and staying high for about 12 hours, total. By 9am, they’re back to nearly undetectable daytime levels, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Ideally, this system works consistently every night, allowing you to get quality sleep. But it isn’t always so perfect.

In addition to the day ending, you must experience dim lighting for melatonin production to happen like it’s supposed to. So, shift work, where you’re in bright lights regardless of the time of day, can screw with this internal clock.

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The Science: Does Melatonin Really Work?

Melatonin supplements have been studied in the treatment of several sleep disorders and related problems including shift work, jet lag, insomnia, and delayed sleep phase disorder, a condition where you have problems falling asleep before 2am and waking in the morning.

Like most scientific research, particularly in the world of dietary supplements and relatively new dietary supplements at that, the results of this research are mixed. Here’s what we know:

A 2004 summary from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reviewed some  of the available research at the time and found very little promising in the way of melatonin treating sleep problems. However, this was many years ago, and the online document details, “This publication is provided for historical reference only and the information may be out of date.”

Since that summary was published, a wide variety of newer research has been done. In 2017, a review was published in Neurological Research looking at a large body of studies, mostly completed within the past 10 years. Their findings: melatonin shows promise in the treatment of insomnia, sleep breathing disorders such as apnea, narcolepsy, disorders of the sleep-wake cycle, and parasomnias or physical and emotional disturbances during sleep.

Depending on the symptoms, the researchers found melatonin could:

  • Improve sleep quality
  • Increase total sleep time
  • Decrease time to get to sleep
  • Improve sleep efficiency
  • Reduce nocturnal activities and position changes
  • Increase blood flow and decrease blood pressure, in the case of sleep breathing disorder
  • Regulate the circadian rhythm

Additional research has found melatonin valuable in easing jet lag, when you travel across more than one time zone. For shift work, the evidence suggests melatonin supplementation can improve the quality of daytime sleep, though it may not affect nighttime alertness.

Safety, Dosing, and Side Effects

There are few, if any, long-term studies on melatonin supplementation. What this means is we simply don’t know how taking melatonin can affect you after long-term usage. However, the supplement appears to be safe for short-term use.

Though side effects of melatonin supplementation are rare, they may include drowsiness, headache, dizziness and nausea, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

As for dosing, it doesn’t take much. Supplements generally cause blood levels of the hormone to rise far above natural levels. In other words, more is not necessarily better — a 1 to 3 mg dose may raise blood melatonin by as much as 1 to 20 times the normal level, according to the National Sleep Foundation. So err on the conservative end of the dosing range.  

Getting a Good Night’s Rest, Regardless

Sleeping well may very well take practice. For some folks, poor sleep hygiene can exacerbate or prolong an otherwise mild problem. Make sure you’re taking all of the steps to naturally improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.

  1. Shut off electronic devices an hour before bed.
  2. Keep your bedroom cool and dark when it’s time to sleep.
  3. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, when possible, with similar sleep and wake times.
  4. Get daily exercise.
  5. Take steps to manage your stress.
  6. Get sunlight throughout the day — encourage your pineal gland to honor the natural light cycle.
  7. Avoid naps. We know, they’re amazing, but if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, naps aren’t helping matters.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.