Melatonin is a sleep aid that is easily accessible over-the-counter and cheap – seems like the simplest and fastest solution for your sleep issues. Also, it’s natural, so that means it’s safe to use it, right? Unfortunately, things are never this simple.
In this video, I will help you understand all the ins and outs of melatonin, how it works in your body, and if taking its synthetic form can really help you sleep better. At the end of the video, I will recommend 3 natural and safer alternatives.
Watch this video before reaching for another melatonin pill!
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles. This hormone is naturally produced by the pineal gland. However, in its synthetic form, or as a medication, it is used for the short-term treatment of sleep issues such as insomnia, jet lag or shift work.
Evidence that melatonin supplements are beneficial for sleep is unclear. Despite claims by supplement manufacturers, melatonin has shown mixed results as a treatment for any disease. It is not recommended for children, for women trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding mothers.
Two studies conducted in 2017 showed that melatonin helps you to fall asleep only 6 minutes faster, and stay asleep only 7 minutes longer. Total sleep time in some participants wasn’t affected by melatonin pills at all.
How does Melatonin work for Sleep?
Melatonin’s main job in the body is to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Whenever the sun goes down, and the temperature starts to decrease, your body begins producing more melatonin, which signals the body to prepare for sleep. Light decreases melatonin production and signals the body to prepare for being awake. The human body naturally produces enough melatonin for sleep on their own. As we age, and especially once we reach age 54, natural melatonin secretion significantly decreases.
Without melatonin, it would be impossible for us to sleep in a normal and healthy way. However, this doesn’t mean that putting melatonin in a bottle and selling it in a form of a pill will help you solve your sleep issues. On the contrary, if you use it for a prolonged time, it may hurt your sleep, rather than improve it.
Before I explain to you why taking melatonin is a bad idea, I have to mention that you can easily buy these pills over-the-counter in the US and Canada. However, in the UK it is a prescription-only medication, and it is not FDA-approved for any use. In Australia and Europe, online sources and some studies we found suggest that melatonin is approved as a sleep aid only for people over the age of 54. (Just a brief reminder, after the age of 54, our natural melatonin production significantly decreases) However, other online sources indicate that you can obtain melatonin over-the-counter in Australia and some European countries such as Hungary and Netherlands.
Shouldn’t we be worried about these tight regulations in other parts of the world? It’s definitely something to think about.
Now, back to our main topic – although sold as a supplement, you should never forget that melatonin is still a hormone. It cannot replace or help with natural production; on the contrary, it can only further inhibit it.
How exactly? We naturally produce only 0.25mg of melatonin, and melatonin pills come in doses of 3mg which is 12 times higher than normal. When we are overdosing our bodies with melatonin, our body has to react and somehow get rid of all that excess. That’s where SCN comes in.
The suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) is a tiny region of the brain in the hypothalamus responsible for controlling circadian rhythms. The SCN, functions as a master circadian pacemaker controlling the timing of the sleep-wake cycle and coordinating this with circadian rhythms in other brain areas and other tissues to enhance behavioral adaptation.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus contains a bunch of different neurons that circulate back and forth to the different areas of our brain. The SCN also has melatonin receptors that circulate back and forth to the pineal gland and help regulate melatonin secretion. Normally, the signals from the receptors would be sent to the pineal gland in response to the environmental light/dark cycle. However, when we take melatonin pills (remember the dose is 12x higher than natural production), we instantly trigger a reaction, because the melatonin receptors in the SCN become overloaded. So, what happens next is that the receptors will signal the pineal gland to stop producing melatonin because we already have enough of it.
This is how melatonin supplements inhibit natural melatonin production, and this is how you become dependent on it. By continuing to use melatonin you put your body in a negative feedback loop.
You might be thinking, okay natural production is slowed down, but I can regulate it with pills. However, doing so, you are also throwing off balance other hormones in your body. Let’s see how.
Our body and hormones work like a finely-tuned machine. Hormones are responsible for key homeostatic processes in the body such as control of blood glucose levels and control of blood pressure. Throwing off only one hormone out of balance (in our case melatonin), will mess up the entire body and normal regulation of the internal conditions within cells and organs. The body always has to be in perfect hormonal balance. For example, if your testosterone levels reduce, estrogen levels may increase to restore the balance. The same happens when you use melatonin. When it goes high, another one is needed to balance it all out somehow.
When you have higher doses of melatonin in your body than needed, this means your body will need much longer time to clear it out. This also explains why you have a hangover effect when you take it. The sad thing is that some people are so used to this effect, that they don’t even know anymore how their life looks without it.
Is falling asleep only 6 minutes longer and staying asleep 7 minutes more than usual really worth all these risks and effects? Really not.
Also, the point of the entire story is that taking melatonin to induce sleep when the sleeping problems are not caused by a lack of it creates an opposite reaction. When there is too much melatonin in the brain, the synapses will become less responsive, which will cause more sleeping problems. In that case the effect of melatonin will be minimal – on average, you will get 8 minutes more sleep per night, and fall asleep on average 7 minutes faster. To really solve your sleep problems, you have to know what is causing them and address those.
Now back to homeostasis.
How Melatonin Affects other Hormones?
Scientists are not sure how exactly melatonin affects other hormones in our body, but new studies, aiming to find out more, are being conducted every day — according to research, overdosing leads to drowsiness and reduced core body temperature. Very large doses have adverse effects on the performance of the human reproductive system.
In experiments conducted by Japanese researchers and the University of California, Berkeley, was found out that melatonin switches on a recently discovered hormone called gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH). GnIH has been found to have the opposite effect to the key hormone priming the body for sex – gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Over time, switching off GnRH causes the gonads – testes and ovary – to shrink.
The good news is that the results of the study were observed on birds, but it is not unlikely that it doesn’t affect humans. We should be concerned because if melatonin can do this to one neuropeptide system, chances are high it can do it to any other.
Alternatives to Melatonin
So, what should we use instead of melatonin? Is there some natural sleep aid that is safe, and that can really help us to sleep better? Out top 3 alternatives are magnesium, theanine, and glycine.
Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant that blocks the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, and as a result, produces a calming effect. On a chemical level, magnesium activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the system responsible for getting you calm and relaxed.
It regulates neurotransmitters, which send signals throughout the nervous system and brain, and also supports the production of the hormone melatonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for quieting down nerve activity. It is the same neurotransmitter used by sleep drugs like Ambien. By helping to quiet the nervous system, magnesium prepares your body and mind for sleep. So, instead of taking a shortcut, and using synthetic hormones, you should help your body naturally produce more melatonin.
L-theanine L is an amino acid that is found in tea leaves. L-theanine promotes relaxation and facilitates sleep by contributing to a number of changes in the brain, such as boosting GABA levels, lowering the levels of excitatory brain chemicals, and enhancing alpha brain waves.
The biggest benefit of this substance is that, at the same time, it increases chemicals that promote feelings of calm and induce sleep, while also reducing levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety.
L-Theanine helps to restore your wake cycle meaning you won’t have to worry about the hangover effect in the morning. The supplement doesn’t disrupt the natural stages of your sleep, and doesn’t produce a sedative effect; simply a relaxing one.
Glycine (also known as 2-Aminoacetic Acid) is an amino acid and a neurotransmitter. The body produces glycine on its own, and we also consume it through food. This amino acid aids sleep by decreasing your subcutaneous temperature and cooling the body down. By reducing the body temperature, melatonin and GABA levels go up, which induces sleep and helps to improve its quality. Glycine also increases serotonin levels, and serotonin is vital for promoting the natural production of melatonin.
So, there were 3 different ways to fall asleep faster and stay asleep without using melatonin and becoming a hormone pumper.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic