What You Should Know About Using Melatonin for Sleep

Countless people would love to learn how to fight insomnia without prescription medications. Is a melatonin supplement the answer? Mixed research results tell us to proceed with caution.

using melatonin

Make no mistake: Using melatonin may be helpful in dealing with insomnia for some, but it may be counterproductive for others.

© Katarzyna Bialasiewicz | Dreamstime.com

If you’re always searching for help in how to fight insomnia, you may have wondered about using melatonin for sleep. Melatonin is an over-the-counter supplement, sold right alongside vitamins and fish oil. But can it help you achieve a restful night’s sleep?

Many people have tried using melatonin for sleep and swear by it. Others who have tried it haven’t had as much success. But they may have underlying conditions that make their insomnia a more complicated challenge. Research has also produced mixed results, with some studies showing that melatonin may be better in certain situations as opposed to a nightly solution.

More About Using Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the tiny pineal gland, located in the brain. During the day, the pineal could be described as “off.” It doesn’t produce any melatonin until nighttime, when the environment around you gets darker. Blood levels of melatonin increase and stay elevated until morning. As your surroundings become brighter, melatonin levels in the blood dip sharply.

avoid using screens at night

Be wary of the lights around you at night—especially when it involves a screen in your face in the dark.

So the production of melatonin is the result of your body’s natural clock as well as the amount of light and darkness around you. Artificial light, for example, can help reduce melatonin in the body even if the lights go on at a time when melatonin levels should still be strong.

That’s why, when experts explain how to fight insomnia, they always recommend keeping your bedroom dark and avoiding exposure to bright lights or lighted screens (TV, computer, cell phone). You want to get that melatonin production up and running. When melatonin levels are elevated, you tend to crave sleep and become less alert. When the levels drop, your thinking becomes clearer and you become less sleepy.

Synthetic Melatonin

While your body should produce enough melatonin to keep your sleep/wake cycle consistent and healthy, there may be times when taking synthetic melatonin for sleep is worth trying.

Many people try melatonin because they want to know how to fight insomnia without prescription drugs. Synthetic melatonin is the only hormone sold in the U.S. without a prescription. Most people who try melatonin for sleep tolerate it well and have few side effects.

The supplement comes in a variety of dosages, though pills of 3 milligrams (mg) or 5 mg are most common. If children try it, they are usually advised to start with a 1.5 mg pill.

If you try melatonin, start with a low dose until you have a better sense of how if affects you. Taking too much melatonin can produce very vivid dreams, and may actually interfere with your sleep.

Taking melatonin during the day may make you very drowsy and may throw off your biological clock.

When Melatonin May Be Best

Melatonin is meant only for short-term use—about two months or less. Research suggests its best purpose is to help people deal with jet lag, when they have traveled across several time zones. The supplement may help you fall asleep at the time appropriate for your new time zone and get you into the proper schedule for that location.

Individuals who have success using melatonin for sleep usually find that it helps them fall asleep faster than normal and that they wake up less frequently. However, melatonin doesn’t seem to help people sleep longer than they normally do. For that reason, it’s important that if you try melatonin, you time your dose so that you can wake up approximately when you desire.

Other Considerations in Using Melatonin

Talk with your doctor before you try melatonin for sleep. If you take a prescription sleep medication or if you have a health condition that could be affected by the supplement, it’s especially important that you discuss the idea with your physician. Drugs that may present interaction problems include blood thinners, birth control pills, and diabetes medications.

Understand that melatonin supplements aren’t like vitamins and other medications in that they don’t receive close scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A product may include added ingredients that aren’t included on the label. As a result, there is no real consistency between brands. One brand of 3 mg synthetic melatonin may result in only a mild melatonin increase in your bloodstream. A different type of 3 mg melatonin could produce a major increase in circulating melatonin. Ask your healthcare provider for specific product suggestions.

It will be extremely important to have realistic expectations about using melatonin for sleep. It’s not a strong prescription drug, but it may be just what you need.

Also, be sure not to take melatonin right before driving a car or doing anything that requires great focus and alertness.

For further reading on insomnia, see these University Health News posts:

Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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