Melatonin is a hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycles.
This important hormone is produced in your body by a small rice-sized gland in your brain called the pineal gland.
Most people recognize the term melatonin as a “natural” sleep aid supplement purchased in retail stores across the country and online, increasing in popularity.
During the day, the pineal is not active. But when the sun goes down, and it becomes dark outside, the pineal is “turned on.” At this point, melatonin is produced and released into the bloodstream.
The melatonin hormone levels rise dramatically around 9 or 10 pm, causing the body to feel more relaxed, less alert, and sleepy.
Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for about 12 hours and fall back to low daytime levels around 9 am.
When the pineal gland is switched “on” by your internal clock, it won’t automatically produce melatonin unless you’re in a dimly lit environment. Even sunlight and artificial indoor lighting can be bright enough to prevent the release of the melatonin hormone in your body.
In the winter, when there is less exposure to natural light, our bodies adapt by changing the internal clock and produce melatonin earlier or later than usual.
This can throw off the natural sleep cycles and cause fatigue, low energy, mood changes, or other symptoms that are found in (non-clinical) seasonal affective disorder (also called “winter blues” or melatonin depression).
However, some people do not naturally produce enough melatonin, especially people over 60 years of age.
There are several causes of low melatonin that can influence hormone production: age, stress, not enough natural light during the day, exposure to light at night (television, phones, computers, clocks), working the night shift, time zone changes (jet lag), lack of sleep, leaky gut and nutrient deficiencies.
When people have trouble sleeping, they often turn to over-the-counter sleep aids.
Synthetic melatonin, not categorized as a drug, has been available as a supplement to consumers for over three decades and is made in factories that the FDA doesn’t regulate.
Makers of the supplement claim synthetic melatonin to be a natural, non-addicting hormone supplement that helps you get to sleep faster and sleep longer.
But beware, synthetic melatonin bought over the counter may contain fillers, inert, and other ingredients that may cause some effects that would not be likely with “natural” melatonin.
“Most melatonin supplements sold over the counter do not contain the amount of the hormone listed on the label, and about 25 percent contain unlabeled serotonin,” according to new research from the University of Guelph.
The study tested 30 common melatonin supplements sold as capsules, tablets, liquids, and strips and showed about 71 percent of the products did not meet the label claims.
About 12 to 25 percent contained nearly five times more of the melatonin hormone than was labeled. More information on this study can be found here.
According to experts, taking synthetic melatonin can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep. It may reduce how often you wake up, but it may not necessarily improve total sleep time. Some studies suggest that prolonged use of melatonin amplifies insomnia.
While theoretically, ingesting too much melatonin will overwhelm the receptors and may change the reaction to the hormone, whereas other studies show no benefit at all. These debates prove that more research is needed to help thoroughly understand the effects of melatonin supplements.
Depending on your sleep needs, the amount you take can vary. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following doses:
- For general help falling asleep, 0.3 and 10 mg.
- For insomnia in older adults, 0.1 and 5 mg may be enough.
- To combat jet lag, 0.1 and 8 mg are taken close to bedtime at your destination and then daily for a few nights.
Parents should take caution when giving melatonin to children on an ongoing basis simply because the concentration of melatonin can vary so widely.
Some animal studies show melatonin can affect puberty-related hormones; however, there is very little evidence yet to say this is actually true in humans.
Children should avoid melatonin unless otherwise directed by a doctor.
Possible Side Effects
Taking melatonin at any dose could still cause some side effects, including headaches, short-term feelings of depression, mild anxiety, irritability, daytime, sleepiness, dizziness, and stomach cramps.
Taking too much melatonin may disrupt your circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycle). Because melatonin is unregulated (and can be made in higher dosages than what is written on the label), overdoses are possible but not highly likely.
Some signs of overdose are: hypothermia, drowsiness, confusion, reduced blood flow and joint pain, irritability, mood changes (sadness, worsening depression, anxiety), hallucinations, paranoia, nightmares, disorientation, a decrease in blood pressure, risk of seizures, risk of liver damage, and stomach problems.
If you would like to get your Melatonin levels tested, make an appointment with a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine practitioner (normally, general practitioners do not perform these tests).
If you want to eliminate the supplements and increase your melatonin naturally at night, make sure to dim the lights, reduce your exposure to computers, tv, and bright lights, and, if possible, wear blue light-blocking glasses at night a few hours before bedtime.
Before taking a melatonin supplement, talk to your doctor, especially if you have diabetes, depression, high or low blood pressure, are pregnant, or have an autoimmune condition.