The Benefits, Side Effects, Alternatives and Everything Else You Need To Know About Melatonin For Sleep

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Written by:


, Sleep Researcher
Last Updated: Sun, November 25, 2018
Fact checked by:

Marko Jevtic

, Sleep Specialist

The lucky ones fall asleep almost as soon as they hit their bed. Unlucky ones try everything from tiring themselves out throughout the day, not sleeping till late or taking naps, using sleep boosting supplements to chamomile tea for a night’s worth of uninterrupted sleep. Over 60% of American adults suffer from one sleep-related ailment or another.

Now, the fast lifestyle that demands caffeine, alcohol and fast food have made sleep disorders a household issue for almost all families. People often expect adults to suffer the most from a plethora of sleep problems, but studies show that teenagers bear the brunt of a fast lifestyle the most. Extended school hours, extracurricular activities for extra credits and social media on electronic devices drive sleep away from them every night. The average high schooler faces about 90 minutes of sleep deprivation each night.

What is the Role of Melatonin for Sleep?

It is a time when sleep experts and general physicians have started considering sleep disorders as severe ailments, almost akin to an epidemic among the American population. While many primary and secondary factors contribute to the lack of proper rest in individuals, each case points towards one hormone that wreaks havoc to sleep schedules.

Melatonin or N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine is a natural biochemical messenger molecule that determines our quality and quantity of slumber. If you have fixed resting hours, but you wake up tired each morning, you might have to blame your melatonin metabolism. It is a hormone that your brain (pineal gland) synthesizes for your body. The generation process depends on the activity of the mammalian clock genes.

How Does the Sleep-Hormone Work?

The time and level of melatonin synthesis depend upon the internal body clock or circadian rhythm. The messenger molecule level in the system starts increasing immediately after sunset and during the evening. It is due to the action of the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN).

Those that have a perfect 24-hour circadian rhythm that is in sync with the external clock, often experience the higher concentration of melatonin at around 3 am. That is when the sleep is the deepest in human beings. It remains high enough up until this hour, and then it starts decreasing with the early hours of dawn.

By the time you wake up at around 6 or 7 in the morning, melatonin should be the lowest in concentration. People, who manage to wake up on time naturally, each day, often have optimal melatonin synthesis and break-down processes.

What Functions Does Melatonin Have Besides Controlling Sleep?

While this hormone is responsible for controlling sleep in higher mammals, it does have other functions that very few people know. These actions determine how much the supplemental doses of melatonin can react with other metabolic processes.

Here is a hint of the different roles this biochemical messenger plays in the human system.

Currently, several researchers and organizations are running tests on the potential effects of melatonin and its regulatory effects on brain diseases, neuron aging, fat cell breakdown, and liver diseases.

What are the Therapeutic Uses of the “Sleep Molecule”?

Melatonin is a natural component of our biological system. Since each human being already has this bio-active agent present in their body, the side effects of introducing melatonin for therapeutic purposes are significantly low. Additionally, this compound is relatively easy to create in laboratory procedures.

Different kinds of insomnia and sleep disorders respond to this hormone upon conventional treatment. Interestingly, melatonin supplement for individuals, who have normal levels of the hormone, does not affect their sleep duration or quality. Over the last few years, researchers have been trying to treat many diseases with melatonin. Here are a few examples of the therapeutic effects of this hormone.

  1. Cancer. Cancers of the colon, rectum, brain, breast, and lung respond to melatonin therapy. However, this natural hormone acts as an anti-cancer agent only when patients undergo supplemental melatonin treatment along with regular radiation and chemotherapy cycles. The hormone can reduce the adverse effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy in patients upon conventional treatment.
  2. Alzheimer’s. Melatonin not only prevents premature aging and early onset Alzheimer’s, but it also treats the disease. Several research papers show that the levels of this messenger decrease with increasing effects of the neurodegenerative disease. Introducing melatonin into the patient’s system slows the neural degeneration process of the brain.
  3. Gallbladder stones. This is a unique hormone that has widespread effectiveness in treating several disorders and diseases, including gallstones. It can help in the conversion of cholesterol into bile. It mobilizes the stones through the bladder and out the urethra. There is a theory that states the contribution of free radicals in the body to gallstone formation. Melatonin has strong anti-oxidative properties, which can be beneficial for the prevention and treatment of gallstones.
  4. Headaches. Several types of headaches, especially cluster headaches benefit the most from melatonin supplement therapy. However, it is essential that the individual suffering from migraines consult a doctor before starting their melatonin treatment. It is primarily because a headache is also a potential side effect of the hormone therapy.

Melatonin can offer the consumer protection from radioactivity. It is right for those undergoing radiation therapy for cancer or pain. Tinnitus is another annoying but persistent problem that affects several people across the country for unknown reasons. Research shows melatonin’s effectiveness in treating the eponymous ringing in their ears. It can either be due to better sleep or due to its antioxidant activities. Doctors don’t yet know much about the interactions melatonin causes that relieve tinnitus.

Are There Ways to Control Melatonin Levels Naturally?

There are several natural influencers of melatonin in our immediate environments. Since the synthesis of the hormone depends exclusively on the internal clock genes, there is an extensive relationship between the hormone and the amount of environmental light your body is receiving. People, who spend more time outdoors during the day and stay away from blue light in the evenings, experience standard melatonin actions that can support healthy sleeping habits.

Other factors like the duration of the day, artificial lighting in your office space and your bedroom, choice of food and drinks often influence the hormone levels. A drop or sudden rise in the level of melatonin can leave you feeling fatigued, drowsy, confused, and sulky. Here are a few natural ways you can boost maintain the melatonin synthesis-breakdown balance in your body.

  1. Start eating melatonin-rich food like strawberries, tomatoes, rice, barley, olives, walnuts, and cherries. Adding these to your dinner menu, in their natural form, will help you fall asleep faster.
  2. Cow’s milk has melatonin. If you are not lactose intolerant, you can consider adding cow’s milk to your daily diet.
  3. Expose yourself to pleasant sunlight in the mornings to lower your melatonin levels.
  4. Stay away from blue LED lights in the evening and switch to all-white LED in the house to boost a healthy spike in sleep hormone levels.
  5. Remove caffeine and alcohol from your evenings to keep your sleep-hormone level regular.

Investigations show that when your body absorbs the melatonin levels from your food, you immediately begin to feel calmer and sleeper than before. Choosing the correct diet can significantly influence the quality and duration of your nightly rest.

What are the Potential Side Effects of Taking Sleep-Hormone Supplements?

There are people, who suffer from more severe forms of sleep disorders. For them, these natural processes do little good, due to prolonged negligence. Our system often becomes resistant to natural sources of hormones and supplements due to extended periods of deprivation. In such cases, doctors put them on regular melatonin supplements.

If you are one of the many, who are currently taking melatonin supplements for sleep, you need to stop worrying. It is a natural sleeping aid that has infinitesimally little side effects.

  1. Melatonin is already available in the natural form of vegetables, fruits, and animal products. Your body needs volumes that are higher than the natural sources.
  2. They now come in pill, tablet, chewable and liquid forms.
  3. Even children can take melatonin for their extensive RBD, night terror, and sleepwalking problems.
  4. The doses can range between 1 to 10 milligrams per individual, depending on preexisting health conditions, body weight, and age.
  5. The ideal time to take the supplement is usually half-an-hour to an hour before sleep.

Even though melatonin has very few interactions and side effects, you need to ask your doctor for the complete information on the “drug” before you can start a course.

What are the Correct Dosages of the Hormone that can Treat Sleep Disorders?

The correct dosage of melatonin can help you fall asleep without sweating it. There are millions of people, who take the hormonal supplement for sound sleep each night. Thousands of them believe that increasing the dosage can help them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. However, that is rarely true.

As we have mentioned before, melatonin for sleep does not support the cause. Instead, it can cause dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Although the side effects of this medication are limited, you need to take the possibilities of unpleasant impacts into account before self-medicating or adjusting the dosage.  

Here is a vague guideline for the dose of melatonin for various problems associated with sleep.

Insomnia and Occasional Sleepiness

These are very common afflictions among the regular American. Children and adults suffer from these problems indiscriminately. The typical dosage for insomnia is about 5 mg before bedtime for adults. Children should, of course, take a smaller dose as per the doctor’s advice. The presence of too much melatonin disrupts the sleep-wake cycle.

The prescription of melatonin to children with neuro-developmental disorders is widespread since they face the most difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep during socially accepted bedtime. Several children require higher than the recommended dosage, but this needs close monitoring and regular testing.

Extensive Periods of Wakefulness Each Night

Several studies suggest a dosage of 2 to 12 mg of melatonin on a regular basis for up to one month for combating delayed sleep phase syndrome.

Disturbed Sleep-Wake Cycle

There have been extensive studies on this form of sleep disorder. Many teens, young adults, and even the elderly population often find themselves awake in the middle of the night and overcome by drowsiness the next day afternoon.

Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) is usually a product of a disrupted circadian cycle. About 2 to 12 mg of melatonin is the ideal dosage for treating this disorder. The dosage varies significantly due to the tolerance of the individual and the effective minimal dose threshold.

Jet Lag

Jet lag sounds like a simple problem that is a product of extensive travel. It might look like one of those fancy “luxury lifestyle” problems that only affect the rich and the famous, but in reality, traveling outside the country has become extensively popular among all socio-economic classes. Jet lag is a real problem every traveler needs to face.

Sometimes, staying awake throughout the new daytime and only taking 20-minute naps in the afternoon can help you fall asleep at night. However, extensive studies show that jet-lagged travelers benefit more from taking 0.5 to 8 mg of melatonin on the night of landing. If you need, you can continue with a mild dosage of melatonin each night until the lag passes.

Melatonin is entirely different from any other sleep medication or tranquilizer you may have taken this far. Since it is a natural component of our biological system, you are at lesser risk of facing side effects. It helps to restore your sleep-wake cycle of 24 hours. If your body fails to produce enough melatonin per night after dark, the supplement can make up for it. Although it is a natural hormone, you should not exceed nine months on melatonin therapy for effective treatment of any sleep disorders.

Why Should Children try Therapy for Better Rest?

Children who sleep soundly perform better than those who suffer from sleep deprivation. Several pediatricians recommend some form of the calming agent for children who have trouble falling asleep on time every night. Youngsters can suffer from over 1 hour of lost sleep for weeks during school. Poor sleeping hygiene and lousy choice of food often affect their sleeping hours.

Proper rest has a strong relation with ADHD and excessive daytime sleepiness in all age groups. Children often benefit from small doses of liquid melatonin. The dosage depends on their daily need, and usually, a sleep specialist or a doctor provides the necessary advice on the same.

Your child might benefit from readjusting their daily schedules, improving their sleep hygiene and adjusting their bedtime. Engaging in regular physical activity can help children with their sleep-wake cycle beyond belief. Since melatonin treatment should never be a long-term solution for sleep disorders in children, you must always emphasize more on their light exposure, physical activity levels, and diet.

What are a Few Safety Tips you Must Always Remember About Melatonin?

Children, pregnant women, lactating mothers and the older population must exercise extra caution while taking melatonin for sleep. Here are a few things you must ensure during your sleep improvement phase.

  1. You should never take melatonin for extended periods. There can be severe side effects for prolonged use since these are usually hormonal effects and they can persist for years. Several times, these side effects stay dormant for months or even for years before surfacing.
  2. This hormone can increase blood clotting. It can be a serious health challenge for those suffering from heart ailments. Several people recovering from thrombosis use anti-clotting medication to dissolve blood clots. Doctors usually do not recommend melatonin for them. You should always be careful if you are taking medication similar to warfarin.
  3. Pregnant women and lactating mothers should not use this treatment. If the use is unavoidable, you need to stay under a doctor’s observation for the treatment period.
  4. Patients with a history of depression or a high predisposition to familial depression should refrain from using melatonin to treat their sleep disorders.
  5. People who have to drive long distances regularly or operate heavy machinery should not undergo melatonin treatment. The effect of these supplements can interfere with your cognition and decision-making abilities.

Animal-derived melatonin from the pineal glands of cows has been in use for several years now. Although several countries like Germany and Canada have banned the sale and prescription of this supplement since it increases the chances of certain viral infections, you can find it today in the US. Interestingly, in the US, you can buy it as an OTC supplement instead of a medicine or drug.

How Does the Sleep Signaling Molecule Help to Restore Your Sleep?

Melatonin does not work alone to boost your sleep duration and quality. This natural supplement works towards the restoration of your body’s circadian rhythm. By setting the right time for sleep, your body can go back to feeling hungry at the right times and sleepy during bedtime.

  1. Melatonin levels increase as the sun goes down and the rise signifies a sharp decrease in core body temperature.
  2. It lowers your blood pressure and helps your muscles relax by releasing a sleepiness response.
  3. Melatonin receptors in the brain bind to the rising levels of the hormone to reduce the neural activity. It also decreases the dopamine levels that boost calmness.

The specific cell signaling process melatonin induces, and the mechanism of this hormone’s action is unclear to the research community and medical practitioners. However, they are sure that bright light can suppress the hormone synthesis.

The blue light wavelength can reduce the level of the hormone in the body, and this makes us feel awake. Staying away from bright light, either by replacing your home light with softer mood lighting or by using blue-light blocking goggles can help you maintain a regular melatonin rise and breakdown cycle for a long time.

How do Researchers Know the Effects of Melatonin on Sleep?

There have been several studies that elicit the relationship between this hormone and rest. Research under Dollins et al. showed that the minute quantities of melatonin could improve sleep onset time significantly when the environment was sleep-inducing as well. The studied doses reduced oral temperatures among the subjects and shortened the sleep latency.

A recent 2017 study by Xie and Chen shows that melatonin can improve sleep onset time, sleep duration and rest quality in people without creating dependence. Benzodiazepines, antihistamines, and antidepressants can result in prolonged addiction problems among the users. N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine is a natural hormone that our pineal gland produces. Therefore, the chance of developing an addiction to it is doubtful.  

Melatonin is an alternative to current therapies that address sleeping disorders, with fewer side effects and dependence problems. This hormone is also seeing extensive use in the treatment of hypersomnolence, breathing disorders, and parasomnias. Research shows that it might be useful in treating eye problems, hypertension, and heartburn in chronic cases.

Recent research highlights the potential use of N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine in the treatment of seasonal depression. Winter blues are typical in countries and regions that experience almost six months of darkness during the winter months. This disorder impacts nearly 20% of the adults in the US. The hormone reduces the effects of seasonal depression naturally for long-term redressal and helps reinstate the regular sleep cycle in spite of the extended periods of darkness outside.

What is a Long-term Solution that can Work After You Stop the Sleep Hormone Treatment?

Since all research articles and health magazines are screaming about restricting melatonin use to only a couple of weeks or a couple of months, there must be some way to restore your sleep in long-term without the interference of other chemicals.

Once you are on melatonin, you can experience child-like slumbers and pleasant dreams. But, once the doctor or sleep specialists take you off it, you will revert to old sleeping problems. Withdrawal and reversal of symptoms are bound to happen if you do not make the necessary changes to your diet and lifestyle.

Here are a few things you can try to spruce up your mornings post melatonin therapy.

  1. Try working out every morning for a while. Meditation of course helps, but you need to mobilize your body to send the message that it is time to be active. It can boost your morning metabolism and use up the leftover melatonin from the previous night.
  2. You should welcome the morning by stepping outside. It is challenging for homemakers and home-based freelance workers to spend time outside daily during the mornings. However, research shows that sunlight is vital for establishing the natural rhythm in our body. The internal clock genes depend on sunlight for their regular functions to a great extent.
  3. Eating healthily throughout the day, keeping your bowel movement timely, and detoxifying whenever necessary can help you reduce excessive daytime sleepiness. If morning sunlight cannot prevent you from feeling sleepy by 10 am, you need to consider blue-light boxes for mornings. You can switch to green tea, lemon-ginger tea and protein-rich breakfasts for giving your body the necessary zest.
  4. Avoid caffeine after the evening. Ideally, switch to decaf if you love the taste of coffee. Tea has a significant concentration of caffeine, and you can prevent nighttime sleep deprivation by avoiding all sorts of caffeinated products after 6 pm. the normal metabolism requires about 4 hours to flush out 100 grams of caffeine. Remember to never consume more than 100 grams of caffeine in the form of tea, coffee or energy drinks on a regular basis.
  5. Go to bed at a regular time each night. Some people find it easy to fall asleep by 11 pm, but you might not be one of them. If you finish work by 9 and you want to eat slowly, then enjoy some time with your friends or family, your daily bedtime might be. There is no need to feel guilty about a later than usual night, as long as you are getting full sleep. Going to bed at a regular hour helps your body understand what’s the appropriate time to feel sleepy.
  6. Most importantly, you need to limit your blue-light exposure throughout the evening. Post 6 or 7 pm, you should try to avoid using your PC or laptop. We know how ridiculously impossible that sounds, but even taking a break every 15 minutes helps. Two hours before bed, keep your mobile phone away or at least install a blue-light blocker. Several Android and Apple applications now claim to block blue wavelengths of light, but their efficiencies are debatable.

Try to continue without melatonin supplements for as long as possible after a course of treatment. You can always start taking them when you have to travel overseas, or the sleep-wake disorder becomes chronic once again.

Correcting sleep-wake ailments can be tedious. It takes a lot of tenacity and patience to perfect an already askew routine. Some people have to try for over a year to come back to a regular 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. The only secret to success is never giving up.

How to Know When to Stop Taking the Supplements?

Melatonin levels are difficult to ascertain or assume in an individual. If the melatonin supplement does work, you must not continue for longer than two months. It is safe for an individual to regularly take the recommended dosage for only two months at a stretch. In the meanwhile, if you become pregnant or develop other health complications stop taking melatonin immediately and contact your doctor.

There are times when doctors presume a lack of enough sleep hormones in the system since the patient exhibits a lack of regular sleep patterns. In reality, there are several reasons why a person can experience extended periods of wakefulness. From lifestyle disorders to benign tumors in the brain, there can be various reasons for prolonged and unnatural wakefulness in human beings.

You must stop taking the hormonal supplements if they show no improvement of sleep in 2 weeks. Increasing the dosage is risky, and you must never attempt it on your own.

Why Should you be Very Cautious About Melatonin Treatment?

Melatonin is not another sleeping pill you can pop before bed. It might not be that simple. Since it is a hormone, it has several underlying effects and interactions that experts are still exploring. Parents must be cautious while giving melatonin to their children. Children and the elderly require round the clock observation when the begin melatonin therapy for sleep.

Since it is a readily available OTC medication, people tend to treat it like aspirin or Advil. However, the repercussions of wrong dosage or unnecessary treatment with a hormonal supplement can be deleterious for the health of the consumer. Any form of treatment for any disease or disorder involving melatonin requires close examination, tests, and advice by a doctor or a specialist.

Melatonin does not have the same effect on everyone. It can be due to genetic differences between the receptors of the particular hormone, increased resistance to the sleep-molecule or due to other unknown factors. Several researchers have shown that for several test subjects with insomnia, this sleep hormone does not do much to improve sleep quality or duration. It is useful in treating circadian rhythm disorders by strict regulation of administration time and quantity, as per the instructions of a sleep specialist.

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