Sleep might be one of the most basic bodily functions and something that each of us is meant to do for a solid 7-9 hours per day, too few Americans are getting enough. In fact, 70 percent of Americans report having trouble sleeping at least one night a month, and 11 percent who report difficulty sleeping every single night, per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sleep deficiency is real, and problematic, as it can lead to slowed thinking, a reduced attention span, poor memory, lack of energy and risky decision-making, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
The good news is that there are sleep solutions right at your fingertips that don’t require taking prescribed medications. One of those are melatonin supplements, which give you an increased dose of a hormone that your body already produces when it’s time to sleep. “When it gets dark, the brain is triggered to switch from producing mostly serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter, to producing more melatonin, the sleep hormone, from the pineal gland,” explains Canada-based naturopathic doctor Sarah Connors, N.D. “The balance between melatonin and serotonin is what creates the sleep-wake cycle, otherwise known as our circadian rhythm.”
Benefits of melatonin supplements
While many heavy sleep medications such as benzodiazepines (Xanax®) and barbiturates (Nembutal) have a sedative effect that can be unpleasant, as they can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting, per the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Melatonin, however, has been shown in numerous studies to be significantly effective for sleep, without causing sedation.
Melatonin has also been shown to be helpful, according to a review published in Cochrane Library. “During travel, I have my patients take 10 mg of melatonin when it is 9 PM at the location they are traveling to help them adjust,” notes board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D.
Melatonin is also a potent antioxidant, so it has the potential to affect various areas of the body, including the eyes. One study published in the International Journal of Ophthalmology found melatonin to be beneficial for treating glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. “While there are only a limited number of studies that have been done in this area, the studies do look promising in protecting the retina and preserving visual acuity,” says Connors.
For women of child-bearing age, melatonin supplements may also help improve fertility. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Pineal Research found that melatonin was beneficial for improving egg quality, in women.
Who are melatonin supplements right for?
Melatonin supplements can be beneficial for most people, but especially those who are having trouble sleeping. Night workers, in particular, can benefit from a boost of melatonin so that they can sleep during daylight hours. It can also help reduce jet lag for travelers by resetting our internal clock and helping us avoid the symptoms associated with traveling to different time zones, explains naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist David Friedman, N.D., D.C.
While many sleep supplements are not ideal for young children, Friedman notes that melatonin, especially when used for a short period of time, can be safe for children and adolescents. “Not only can melatonin be a great short-term method to help kids get deep restorative sleep while helping to establish good bedtime routines, but it can also be used to help them reset sleep schedules like after summer breaks, traveling, or going on vacation,” he says.
Is melatonin safe?
Overall melatonin supplements is fairly safe. “We all need, make and use melatonin internally and a certain amount of use has been shown to be safe, and non-addictive for children and adults,” notes Connors. “There are, however, some concerns about long term use, especially with children, but overall the data tends towards showing both short and long term use are safe for the average healthy adult.”
Pregnant or breastfeeding women, however, should avoid the use of melatonin due to insufficient evidence of safety. One small study linked melatonin use in pregnancy to lower birth weight and higher rates of infant mortality.
How to take melatonin
Connors recommends starting with the lowest dose possible, which is most often 3 mg. “Each person has a different dose that is effective for them,” she says. “Too little of a dose and you might think that melatonin doesn’t work for you, and too high might make you feel groggy and overtired in the morning.”
Connors suggests taking melatonin about 30-60 minutes before you plan on nodding off to sleep. “Since each melatonin can be made a little differently, it is generally a good idea to either follow dosing directions on the bottle or your health care provider’s directions,” she says. “This can help to reduce the chances of experiencing side effects.”