Bottom Line/HEALTH: One of the big buzzwords among people who desperately are trying to get a good night’s sleep is melatonin. Now, melatonin is a hormone, and hormones are tricky stuff. So is it a good thing or a dangerous thing for you to be taking melatonin? Let’s find out.

I’m Sarah Hiner, president of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversation With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.

Today I’m speaking to Dr. Andrew Rubman, a leading naturopathic physician and the medical director of the Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut. Dr. Rubman is also a long-time contributing medical editor to Bottom Line. So welcome, Andy. It’s always great to see you.

Dr. Andrew Rubman: Hi, Sarah.

Bottom Line: People will do anything to be able to get a good night’s sleep, but I always get a little nervous, and we at Bottom Line, in any articles that we write about melatonin, always say it’s tricky stuff. What’s the truth about melatonin? Let’s talk about what is melatonin, and then we’ll talk about why it’s so tricky.

Dr. Rubman: Melatonin is a substance that’s created by one of the deepest glands in the endocrine system called the pineal gland, literally in the center of your head. It helps to regulate biorhythms in the body. The research suggests that it is safe to use and safe to take on an ongoing basis. I still remain somewhat nervous about it because of how deeply acting it is within the body.

Bottom Line: And again, hormones drive our bodies. They drive the cycles of our bodies. So it’s not like you take a sleeping pill and you go to sleep. I mean, that acts as well, but melatonin, now we’re kind of messing with our natural cycles. Is that true?

Dr. Rubman: Right. I like the use of the word “cycles.” Melatonin affects human circadian rhythm. Being more attuned to where the sun is in the sky, going by the old brain’s notion of, “when the sun goes down, we should go to sleep; when the sun comes up, we should be getting up”—particularly useful for people who are traveling internationally, and they land and the sun’s in a place where it shouldn’t be.

Bottom Line: So when they’re taking melatonin then, we’re really forcing your body into other unnatural rhythms.

Dr. Rubman: We’re forcing it to be more vulnerable to a different drummer, shall we say.

Bottom Line: Is melatonin dangerous to take?

Dr. Rubman: I don’t believe it’s dangerous, but I’m still somewhat cautious because it is such a centrally acting and centrally synthesized hormone.

Bottom Line: Something we talk about also is that it’s not one dose and done in terms of that you dose a certain level, but you have to constantly be adapting it—and in fact, increasing the level?

Dr. Rubman: Depending on what the challenges are and what your responses are, you should get a pretty good idea of how you want to modulate it for yourself and how you want to use it when challenges come up.

Bottom Line: You do not really recommend it at all?

Dr. Rubman: I’ve seen it work for that. I think that there are other things that should be considered before melatonin is considered initially, yeah.

Bottom Line: What in particular would you recommend somebody to use instead?

Dr. Rubman: I’d recommend exercising an hour before going to sleep. I’d recommend having a good low glycemic index or slow-burning carb in place. I would recommend 5-hydroxytryptophan with a fruit serving an hour before going to bed, and a calcium magnesium butyrate supplement, because calcium tends to work to improve the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin.

Bottom Line: Is melatonin dangerous for people to take, even if it’s not effective?

Dr. Rubman: I can’t say that it’s dangerous. All I can say is I’m a conservative fellow in a liberal profession. I don’t like to experiment on my patients, and I’m still not yet convinced if it’s safe, even though the research shows me that I’m wrong.

Bottom Line: All right. Thank you, Dr. Andy. The bottom line on melatonin is it may be popular, and you may be hearing a lot of people say that they’re taking it, but the truth of the matter, it’s a hormone. And hormones are not do-it-yourself medicine, and it operates very deeply on the rhythms of your body. There are other things that you can take that might be safer. Watch out for the melatonin. I’m Sarah Hiner, and this is Bottom Line.