Melatonin is a popular sleep supplement, but taking it correctly is key to maximizing its benefits.
A good night’s rest has major benefits for overall health. But unlike eating a healthy diet, logging daily steps, or limiting a sweet tooth, getting enough sleep can sometimes feel beyond our control. Anyone who has ever struggled with slumber knows the powerlessness of trying to force it. Sleep issues are fairly common — nearly one in three adults worldwide experience symptoms of insomnia, and about 10 percent of adults meet the criteria for insomnia disorder.
And while there are many research-backed ways to encourage better sleep — proper bedtime hygiene, warm evening showers, and even certain types of therapy — it’s tempting to opt for the quickest fix. After all, you’re tired. That’s where melatonin comes in. Melatonin is a popular sleep aid in the U.S. — more than a quarter of American adults use it to help them fall asleep, and the average user takes it 211 days a year.
But this supplement isn’t magic. In fact, when used incorrectly, it can do more harm than good.
What many people don’t realize is melatonin isn’t a sleeping pill, says Jennifer Martin, a board-certified behavioral sleep specialist and president of the board of directors for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleeping pills target the part of our brains that makes us tired. Melatonin, on the other hand, is a hormone that helps regulate our sleep cycle by encouraging our internal clock to shift. The brain produces melatonin naturally. However, unlike a sleeping pill, a melatonin supplement won’t necessarily make you fall asleep faster, says Martin. It’ll just signal to your brain that it’s time to prepare for slumber.
Another misconception about melatonin is that it’s a solution for insomnia. “There’s no evidence that melatonin is a great treatment for insomnia,” says Martin.
Instead, Martin suggests that people with insomnia explore therapy options, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. You may have heard of CBT — it’s a treatment option for mental illnesses like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s also helpful for treating insomnia because it helps people explore the emotions that could be contributing to their sleeplessness.
Melatonin, meanwhile, is helpful for people with circadian rhythm problems — for instance, disorders stemming from jet lag or shift work.
Read more: Why Listening to Your Circadian Rhythm Is Essential to Good Health
There are also certain side effects users should be aware of when taking the hormone. For instance, you may feel groggy the day after taking melatonin. That’s in part because most over-the-counter doses of melatonin are much higher than what our bodies produce naturally. Most American adults take five milligrams of melatonin, which is a lot, says Martin.
Typically, our bodies naturally cease melatonin production once we’re exposed to light, like when the morning sun peeks through our bedroom blinds. When we take a manufactured form of the hormone, our body has to metabolize whatever amount we’ve taken. If we take too much, it may cause us to feel drowsy long after we’ve woken up.
“Your body can’t shut off the manufactured melatonin the same way it can when you produce it naturally,” explains Martin.
The good news: There are ways to take melatonin properly. Here are a few tips for using the supplement, including when and how much to take so you don’t overdo it.
Read more: Why Morning Light Is Fundamental to Wellness
Consult a Doctor
Melatonin is available only by prescription in many parts of the world, including in the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada. In the U.S., however, people can obtain the hormone over the counter at drug stores, grocery chains, and even at some wellness shops.
Even so, Martin recommends that people consult a sleep specialist before using the supplement.
“What a sleep-medicine provider would do is actually try to figure out what a person’s internal circadian rhythm looks like and then find a time of day to take melatonin,” says Martin.
Because melatonin shifts your internal clock, timing is important. If you take it too early, you may wake up earlier than desired. If you take it too late, you may not fall asleep when you want.
“I never recommend that people take melatonin on their own without a sleep specialist,” says Martin.
Take a Low Dose
When it comes to melatonin, more is rarely better. It’s worth repeating that over-the-counter doses of melatonin are often much higher than what your body produces naturally. If you take too much, you could struggle with grogginess. According to Martin, the ideal dose should be less than 1 milligram. However, he adds, it’s tough to find a dose that low on the market.
Read more: Sleep Supplements We Swear By
Anticipate a Possible Placebo Effect
“When people take supplements to sleep in general, there’s a big placebo effect,” says Martin. “If you believe that something will help you sleep, it will for a little while.”
When the placebo effect wears off, you could be tempted to take a higher dose to achieve the same result. But increasing the dose won’t necessarily benefit your sleep and could cause tiredness during the day.
Sleepless Nights Happen
If you’re typically a solid sleeper but have one bad night, don’t stress. “A bad night of sleep now and then is normal,” says Martin. This is especially true if you’re under stress. Instead of reaching for melatonin the next evening, try to maintain your routine and avoid the temptation to make up for lost sleep by napping. Chances are, you’ll fall asleep just fine the following night.
Read more: 7 Sleep Myths — Debunked
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