- Melatonin is a hormone that naturally occurs in the body and regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
- To boost melatonin naturally, avoid bright lights before bed and eat foods like milk or grapes.
- If you use melatonin supplements, start by taking 0.5 to 1 mg about two hours before bedtime.
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the body that plays a crucial role in the circadian rhythm and our ability to fall asleep.
Here's what you should know about the hormone melatonin and whether or not taking melatonin supplements can help you get a better night's rest.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that naturally occurs in the body. Light and darkness act as cues that tell the brain to produce melatonin.
A tiny gland in the brain called the pineal gland produces melatonin at high levels every evening in response to darkness, helping the body get ready for sleep.
Melatonin levels drop significantly in the early morning hours, and the pineal gland is relatively inactive during the day, until darkness comes and the cycle repeats.
A person's natural circadian rhythm, along with light and darkness, are the main factors that affect natural melatonin production.
Production of the sleep hormone can be affected if the person experiences a disruption to their circadian rhythm, such as travelling to different time zones or working non-traditional hours. A 2017 study found that compared to traditional daytime workers, those on the night shift produced 33.8% less melatonin.
The amount of artificial light you look at, particularly blue light emitted from electronics, is also tied to the amount of melatonin you produce. A 2017 study concluded blue light before bedtime is linked to suppression of melatonin production and reduced quality of sleep.
How to increase melatonin naturally
To increase your body's production of melatonin naturally, you should do the following:
- Avoid light exposure at night: Stop using your blue light-emitting devices two to three hours before bed if possible. Otherwise, consider getting blue light-blocking glasses that can counteract the effect. Room lights should also be dimmed or turned off to kick melatonin production into gear.
- Create a drop in body temperature: "If someone gets out of the shower or a hot bath, that drop of temperature from the bath to the room's temperature is allowing for a more robust melatonin release," says Alon Y. Avidan, MD, MPH, Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.
- Eat foods containing melatonin: Melatonin has been discovered in many foods. A 2017 study published in Nutrients reported detectable levels of melatonin in milk, some fruits (grapes, cherries, and strawberries), seeds, legumes, and nuts (pistachios appear to have the highest levels of melatonin than other nuts).
Melatonin supplements for sleep
According to Avidan, melatonin supplements promote sleep by raising your melatonin levels as the hormone enters your bloodstream, blocking the "alerting effect" of the circadian clock.
Melatonin supplements are a more natural way to promote sleep, as opposed to taking hypnotics such as Ambien or benzodiazepines like Klonopin. Prescription sleeping pills work completely differently by binding to receptors in the brain that promote sedation.
In general, research surrounding the effectiveness of melatonin for sleep has been promising. A 2013 meta-analysis determined that among 19 studies and 1683 subjects, participants taking melatonin rather than a placebo fell asleep about seven minutes faster and slept for about 8 minutes longer.
More recently, a 2017 review also concluded that melatonin supplements can help people fall asleep faster as well as improve quality of sleep.
According to Avidan, there's no universal dose of melatonin that will be effective for everybody — and not everybody will feel the effect of melatonin. If melatonin doesn't help you fall asleep, it's possible you need a higher dose, or, that your sleep troubles are caused by something else.
How much melatonin is safe to take?
A low dose of melatonin is considered 0.5 milligrams to one milligram, which Avidan says can be enough to adjust somebody's circadian pattern in the case of situations like jet lag or daylight savings.
If someone is really struggling to fall asleep, they might need to move up to a three milligram dose, which can be considered the "hypnotic dose."
Certain conditions may call for even higher doses. "High doses between five to 15 milligrams are available for people who have a certain parasomnia – an abnormal behavioral activity that occurs during sleep, for example, sleepwalking," Avidan says.
However, a dose of five milligrams or more should not be taken without approval from your doctor.
When should you take melatonin?
As far as when you should be taking it, be sure to take a melatonin supplement about two hours before your desired bedtime. Since melatonin affects circadian rhythms, it is important to avoid taking it too late at night.
For example, taking melatonin at 3am after tossing and turning could throw off your sleep schedule and affect your rest for the remainder of the week.
Can you overdose on melatonin?
Though it is possible to take too much melatonin, it won't result in a harmful overdose as with some other drugs.
"It is impossible to overdose on melatonin since toxic levels of melatonin [that put life at risk] have never been registered," says Lorenzo Franceschetti M.D., a researcher at the University of Milan, who has conducted extensive studies on melatonin.
Melatonin side effects
Unpleasant side effects can occur when taking high doses of melatonin. Possible common side effects of melatonin include:
- Next-day drowsiness
However, both Avidan and Sassone-Corsi say we don't have enough concrete evidence to say what dose is unsafe, or what particular groups of people melatonin may be unsafe for. For example, we don't have sufficient evidence surrounding taking melatonin during pregnancy to say if it's safe or not.
"We don't know enough yet. I will not say that it's dangerous, but I would use some caution," Sassone-Corsi says.
Something else to keep in mind is the fact that the FDA doesn't regulate melatonin, since it's a supplement and not a drug. This means that the supplements you're taking might not be the dosage you think. According to Avidan, a lot of doses are inconsistent with what the bottle says.
Who should take melatonin?
According to Avidan, the people who would benefit the most from taking melatonin are:
- People dealing with jet lag
- Alzheimer's or dementia patients dealing with insomnia due to neurodegeneration
- People with parasomnia (abnormal sleep behaviors REM movement disorder, for example)
- People with delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) – which usually occurs in preteens and teens going through puberty
Other health benefits of melatonin
As more research is conducted surrounding melatonin, scientists are finding more uses for melatonin – and they aren't just surrounding sleep.
"Regarding health conditions, melatonin can be called a 'Swiss army knife' since it can impact every cell of the human body," Franceschetti says.
However, it is important to note that these uses are very experimental and, especially as a treatment for dementia or as an anti-inflammatory agent, melatonin has not been used in clinical practice.
In a 2017 study that he co-authored, Franceschetti and his team concluded melatonin can act as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, protecting cells from damage and death.
Free radicals (atoms or molecules that are highly reactive) can cause cellular death and lead to various health conditions, and antioxidants can prevent it – and that's where melatonin comes in.
"Because of the ability to neutralize radicals, melatonin can defer age-related dysfunction of several organs, such as the heart, for example," Franceschetti says.
Some other possible uses for melatonin are:
- Endometriosis pain relief. People who suffer from endometriosis, a uterine disorder that causes chronic pelvic pain, can get relief with melatonin due to its anti-inflammatory effects. A 2013 study published in Pain found that 10 milligrams of melatonin was more effective than a placebo in reducing daily pain by 39.80%, and were less likely to use other pain relievers.
- IBS treatment. Since the gut has melatonin receptors, research has been conducted to see if melatonin can help stomach conditions, such as IBS, and the findings are promising. A 2014 review concluded that those who took melatonin versus placebo in various studies did experience some relief from abdominal pain, and that the anti inflammatory properties can reduce intestinal inflammation.
- Reduce cancer risk. Sassone-Corsi says melatonin can possibly act as an anti-tumor agent and may prevent certain types of cancer, though there's not enough research to say for sure. However, a 2018 review said that upon analysis of multiple studies in humans and rats, melatonin seems to have anti-tumor effects in hormone dependent cancers: ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer.
- Lower risk of Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). According to a 2016 review, melatonin can counteract the oxidative stress on the eyes that may get worse with age, due to its antioxidant properties. They note one study where participants with AMD took three milligrams of melatonin nightly for three months. After the three months, their vision remained stable.
Melatonin is a key hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle. If you're having trouble falling asleep, consult your doctor before you start taking melatonin supplements, as you can develop an individualized plan for dosage and safety.