Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that signals the body it’s time for sleep. It is not regulated by the FDA and a wide variety of supplements are available. Before considering melatonin it’s important to consult with your physician to be sure you are a good candidate. Although it is naturally occurring, additional supplementation may be associated with some side effects. Safety in the elderly, those with heart disease, and in pregnancy / breastfeeding has not been fully established. Better safe than sorry, check with your doctor.
Melatonin has been used successfully in the setting of delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), jet lag and shift work sleep disorder. In the absence of these conditions, the scientific literature suggests that melatonin had little benefit.
How Does Melatonin Work?
Your “biological clock” is located in the brain and it regulates the times when we feel sleepy or alert. The “clock” monitors light exposure, activity levels, eating, and body temperature and helps coordinate all of the bodies activities based on the time of day. When the “clock” senses that daytime has passed, it signals the pineal gland in your brain to release melatonin. Melatonin release leads to sleepiness and eventually sleep. Our melatonin levels peak in the middle of the night, and trail off in the morning. Exposure to bright light in the morning suppresses the melatonin response, helping to wake up our brain again.
When to Take Melatonin
A melatonin supplement taken in the evening can help move the biological clock earlier so that over time sleep can occur sooner. The melatonin supplement signals the brain that night has arrived already and that it’s time to move into sleep “mode”.
There a few important things to be aware of if you are considering taking melatonin.
Low dosages of melatonin work just fine.
Melatonin comes in different forms. The capsule or tablet form that you swallow should be taken 2 to 3 hours before your intended bedtime. The kind that dissolves under the tongue (sublingual) or the spray version can be taken about 1 hour before bedtime.
There is not a ton of published research available about the long term effects of melatonin on sleep. However, some published reports show that melatonin can help address DSPS, shift work, and jet lag effects.
Melatonin, as a supplement, is not regulated by the FDA. Therefore, it’s difficult to know whether you are getting what the label says in terms of purity and quantity of the active ingredient. We recommend purchasing your melatonin from a reputable company that sells nutritional supplements.
Don’t expect melatonin to kick in the first night you take it. It doesn’t act like a typical sleep medication by creating a drowsy effect. Instead, it works behind the scenes to slowly advance your internal sleep rhythm. It’s important to stick with it for a few weeks at the same time every night. Think of it as a sleep health vitamin!
The effectiveness of melatonin to move sleep earlier is greatly enhanced with exposure to bright light in the morning after you get up.
Melatonin has few side effects, but it’s not for everyone. It’s not a good idea for people with certain medical conditions, or who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant to take melatonin. Talk with your doctor before getting started.