Melatonin: How It Works and Should You Take It?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the human brain in response to darkness. It helps keep the timing of your internal clock, or circadian rhythms, balanced with your sleep patterns. But there's more to melatonin than a sleeping aid.
What Is Melatonin?
How much melatonin your body produces and its release into your brain is connected to the time of day. Production and release increase when it gets dark and decrease when it gets light. Melatonin production naturally declines with age.
Melatonin is popularly used as a sleep aid for insomnia or jet lag. It is a natural hormone, but a synthetic form is manufactured for commercial sale in the U.S. and Australia over-the-counter but requires a prescription in other areas of the world, such as Europe.
Uses for Melatonin
What is melatonin used for? Some of the common uses for melatonin include:
- Decreasing the effects of jet lag
- Helping the blind with Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder, or Non-24, a condition that disrupts their sleep cycles
- Treating sleep disorders associated with shift work that includes alternating work schedules
- Treating general insomnia
The process that balances our sleep and wakefulness is the wake-sleep cycle. For most, this averages to about 8 hours of sleep at night and 16 hours of activity during the day.
Forms of Melatonin
Like most over-the-counter supplements, melatonin is available in different forms. There are no fixed rules about which form you should take — that's left to personal preference. Here are some general pros vs. cons of the different forms of melatonin available to help you decide which is best for you.
Melatonin Pills — Capsules and Tablets
One of the more popular forms is the pill form, either as a tablet or as a capsule taken at bedtime.
- Tasteless and leaves no aftertaste
- Longer shelf life
- Easily divided, so you can adjust the dosage if you choose
- Can be difficult to swallow
- Size may vary depending on the manufacturer
- May need to take with water or another non-alcoholic drink
Melatonin is also available in liquid form.
- Easier to take, especially if swallowing pills is difficult for you
- Absorbed faster than pill forms
- May not have a pleasant taste
- May not be available in a choice of flavors
- Might be more expensive when compared to other forms of melatonin
Like many multivitamins available today, melatonin gummies are a popular choice.
- Gummies usually taste good
- They're chewable and easier to swallow
- Ideal form for children
- May mistake them for candy and take more than the recommended dosage
Some less common forms may work for you, especially if you can't or don't want to swallow a pill.
How to Take Melatonin
Melatonin works best if taken at a time and in a dosage that is helpful for your specific sleep problem. When taken this way, it can help to shift your biological sleep clock to a more natural rhythm. This can be especially helpful for shift workers and those experiencing disruptions in their circadian rhythms.
Most sleep specialists follow the "less is more" principle when recommending melatonin dosages. A recommendation of 0.3 milligrams to 1 milligram is taken several hours before going to bed. It is important to discuss dosage amounts with your healthcare provider before beginning melatonin, as most over-the-counter forms offer dosages ranging from 3 milligrams to 10 milligrams, which is usually more than most people need.
Get the Best Results from Melatonin
Since melatonin triggers sleep, it can help you fall asleep faster than usual for you, but it may not necessarily help you sleep longer. For most, taking melatonin a half-hour to an hour before bedtime works well to help you fall asleep. If you're taking a liquid form, it may work a little faster than a pill.
Although a range of doses has been used successfully in multiple clinical trials, remember that melatonin is a hormone. This means it may be wise to begin with a low dose to see if it works for you.
How Much Melatonin Should You Take?
Because melatonin is a hormone, it should be taken only as needed, not routinely every night, according to ConsumerLab.com. It is suggested that the lowest dose that will work is the ideal dose, starting at about 1 mg or less. That can be increased in increments up to 3 mg. Higher doses, such as 5 or 10 mg, may be an excessive amount that leaves you groggy.
A study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) determined the physiological dose of melatonin was 0.3 mg, that dosages in this range restore sleep in adults over the age of 50. The research also found that the popular dosage of about 3 mg or more was less effective in treating insomnia. Higher doses can cause potential side effects, such as low body temperature.
Drawbacks to Taking Melatonin
Results of a 2021 study available through StatPearls found melatonin is relatively non-toxic. Some mild side effects have been reported in extended-release forms and high doses. These adverse effects include drowsiness, daytime sleepiness, headaches, and nausea. There is no evidence to suggest people may develop tolerance to melatonin.
Melatonin is contraindicated in the following conditions:
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Renal dialysis
- Hepatic dysfunction or impaired functioning
- Autoimmune conditions
Incidences of acute toxicity of melatonin are remarkably low.
Will Melatonin Affect Your Workouts?
Strenuous exercise triggers inflammatory reactions that can result in muscle damage. A study in 2011 investigated whether these inflammatory reactions could be amended or prevented by melatonin. Taking oral supplements of melatonin during high-energy exercise proved an efficient way to reduce the degree of oxidative stress. This led to the maintenance of cellular integrity and resulted in a reduction of secondary tissue damage. The data obtained in the study also indicated that melatonin had a potent protective effect.
The conclusion of the study was that melatonin supplementation before a strenuous exercise session reduced muscle damage and lessened inflammation associated with the physical changes of muscle damage.
Is Melatonin the Best Sleep Solution?
Health.com conducted a study in 2020 to research independently, test, and review the best products for solving the "I can't sleep" problem too many face, too often. The products they recommended ranged from noise-canceling headphones to all-natural teas to over-the-counter natural supplements.
The best supplement for sleep disorders, according to their extensive research, is melatonin. The dosage range suggested after you consult with your personal healthcare provider is half a milligram up to one milligram within three hours of bedtime.
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