Americans spent approximately $408 million on melatonin in 2017, the Nutrition Business Journal reports.
I believe it. I saw it firsthand when I worked at a health food store — melatonin supplements flew off the shelves. Even children are being given melatonin to help them sleep.
So what’s the real deal with melatonin? What is it, is it effective and safe, and are there ways to boost melatonin production naturally?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by our bodies that helps us sleep. Melatonin levels begin to rise in the evening as the sun begins to set. Levels peak during the night, and taper off toward morning when it’s time to wake up.
Contrary to popular belief, melatonin doesn’t actually put us to sleep.
“Your body produces melatonin naturally,” said Luis Buenaver, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral services at Johns Hopkins University. “It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep.”
You may think that melatonin supplements are “natural.” The hormone produced by your body is natural, of course, but the melatonin supplement you buy in the store is an artificial version of the natural hormone.
Do melatonin supplements work? Not really, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
“When scientists conduct tests to compare melatonin as a ‘sleeping pill’ to a placebo [sugar pill] most studies show no benefit of melatonin,” the foundation states.
Richard Wurtman led a meta-analysis of studies on melatonin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding “after a few days, it stops working” because the receptors in the brain stop responding when there’s too much of the hormone.
The supplements are “likely safe” to take short term, “possibly safe” to take long term and “possibly unsafe” while pregnant and breastfeeding, at least according to WebMD. However, some people experience side effects, including headaches, sleepiness, dizziness, irritability, short-term feelings of depression and stomach cramps.
David Kennaway, the director of the Circadian Physiology Lab at the University of Adelaide in Australia, said there is “extensive evidence” that melatonin affects the cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems, as well as the reproductive systems of animals. Its effects on children’s developing bodies have not yet been studied.
In other words, we don’t know enough about how melatonin supplements affect the rest of our body to know that they’re safe for sure. We do know that our hormones dramatically affect each other in complex ways. So even though it may be “possibly safe,” I don’t recommend supplementing with melatonin long term.
It does make sense to use melatonin for some situations — such as jet lag or those suffering from a circadian rhythm disorder, wrote Krithika Varagur in a Huffington Post article.
“It should not be used for general insomnia,” Varagur wrote.
Melatonin levels decrease as we age so it may make sense to take it later in life if you have trouble sleeping. As for children, a normal, healthy child should have the ability to make the melatonin needed.
If you’re concerned about your (or your child’s) melatonin levels, talk to your doctor about getting tested. Melatonin can be measured from saliva, urine or blood.
The big reason so many of us have trouble sleeping is because artificial bright lights at night suppress the production of melatonin. The blue light from screens (TVs, computers and phones) also keep our body from making melatonin. So if you or your child has a hard time going to sleep at night, one of the best things to try is restricting screens at least an hour before bedtime.
You can also try taking natural forms of melatonin, like tart cherry juice. Studies show that taking tart cherry juice twice a day helps people sleep longer and reduces insomnia. Also, many foods are rich in melatonin, and eating them in the evening can help boost your levels.
The bottom line: Melatonin supplements aren’t effective, aren’t meant to be taken for general insomnia, and affect other hormones in unknown ways. I recommend boosting your melatonin levels naturally and getting tested before resorting to taking supplements.
As always, I wish you a good night’s sleep.