Your sleep-deprived friends may swear by it and you’ve probably read about it online or seen it on drugstore shelves. But is melatonin all it’s cracked up to be, or are you better off just counting sheep to get some ZZZ’s
First, the basics: Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the brain that your body uses to help regulate your circadian rhythm. That’s the 24-hour body clock that, among other vital functions, tells you when to sleep and when to wake up each day.
Your body gradually starts making melatonin about two hours before bedtime, bringing on that familiar drowsy feeling, and production continues through out the night. In fact, melatonin is often called the “Dracula of hormones” because levels rise when it gets dark outside. As sunrise approaches, levels begin to drop, letting you know it’s time to rise for the day.
Given melatonin’s essential role in the body’s internal clockworks, many people assume the supplement is safe. This may be one reason why it has become the fourth most popular supplement among U.S. adults, according to the National Health Interview Survey. Its use doubled between 2007 and 2012, as more than three million adults reported taking the sleep aid.
And it is true: Melatonin is generally harmless – at least if you take it for a short period of time.
It’s not a long-term solution
Taking melatonin an hour or two before bedtime can be effective for sleep issues related to your circadian rhythms. There is some evidence that it could be effective for those with temporary jet lag from traveling across time zones, but this research has limitations and the possible benefits appear to be modest.
And it is true: Melatonin is generally harmless – at least if you take it for a short period of time.
Shift workers with irregular schedules may also benefit from melatonin use, as may those with delayed sleep-wake phase disorder – a condition that makes it difficult to fall asleep at night, resulting in daytime fatigue. Since melatonin production also declines with age, older people may have trouble falling asleep, and melatonin could provide relief in this case.
It’s always important to talk to your healthcare provider before taking melatonin. Short-term use of melatonin may not be harmful but there is insufficient evident on its long-term safety, according to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. And in some cases, relying on melatonin could simply mask another problem.
For example, sleeplessness could signal a hormonal imbalance, a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression, or a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea. If left untreated, these issues could worsen or possibly lead to complications.
It’s not regulated
Like all supplements, there are other potential downsides to melatonin use that shouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s important to understand that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate melatonin or other dietary supplements in the same way that it controls prescription and over-the-counter medications. That means the agency doesn’t test these products for safety or effectiveness, and they could contain harmful hidden ingredients.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine analyzed 31 melatonin supplements and found that the amount of melatonin they contained often varied wildly from what was listed on the label. The hormone serotonin was also detected in 26% of the samples analyzed. This could be potentially harmful for some people, particularly those who are taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antidepressants that increase serotonin levels in the brain. Combining medication or supplements that jointly boost serotonin can cause it to accumulate and reach abnormally high levels in the body- a serious condition called serotonin syndrome, which can result in shivering, diarrhea, muscle rigidity, fever or seizures.
It could trigger side effects
Taking melatonin could also lead to some uncomfortable symptoms. They’re usually mild, but you may experience Nausea, Dizziness, Headache and/or sleepiness (when you should be alert)
For these reasons, it’s important to not drive or operate machinery for five hours after taking melatonin.
Dangerous interactions could occur
The supplement could also interfere with other important medications, including blood thinners, diabetes drugs, immune system-suppressing drugs, anti-seizure drugs and some contraceptives. If you’re taking any type of medication, it’s important to talk to your health care provider before taking melatonin or any other dietary supplements.
When to steer clear
Certain people should be more cautious about melatonin use, particularly if it triggers a negative reaction including those with: Chronic insomnia, Restless Legs Syndrome, and/or Dementia.
If you’ve been drinking alcohol, it’s also not safe to take melatonin.
Melatonin is also not for you if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Researchers simply don’t have enough data to know if it’s safe for fetuses or breastfed babies.
What about kids?
Parents desperate for some shuteye may be tempted to give it to their children. There is some evidence that melatonin can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Circadian rhythm sleep problems are common in those with these conditions.
But the possible side effects of melatonin use in kids also include increased bedwetting or urination as well as agitation. Consult your child’s doctor before trying melatonin. It’s worth noting that sleep problems in children can often be eased by creating regular bedtime routine and sticking to healthy sleep hygiene practices, just like adults.
Reduce your reliance
Quick fixes are often tempting- and unfortunately often too good to be true. Before reaching for the melatonin, consider making some simple lifestyle adjustments that can improve your sleep hygiene and help you sleep more soundly. Moves you can try: Stick to a sleep schedule, make your bedroom cool and comfortable, use light to your advantage, wind down, don’t stare at the ceiling, limit caffeine intake, skip other potential sleep disrupters (cigarettes, alcohol, heavy meals).

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