People struggling to sleep are increasingly turning to melatonin, the so-called “sleep hormone,” as a solution.
In fact, the use of melatonin supplements by American adults more than doubled during the decade ending in 2018, according to a study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic…and melatonin use has no doubt increased even further still since 2018, as the pandemic years caused widespread sleep issues.
Problem: Melatonin supplements might not be as safe as people think and may not be as helpful for their sleep problems as they hope.
Melatonin supplements are available over the counter in the US, creating the impression that they’re low risk…but in other countries, they’re available only with a prescription, and those countries’ caution might be merited. Here’s why…
Melatonin is a hormone, like testosterone or estrogen, and messing with the body’s hormone levels is serious business. Multiple studies have shown that short-term use of melatonin generally is safe for adults—but no large-scale research has been done on the effects of taking melatonin supplements daily for longer than six months.
Taking melatonin supplements can alter the effectiveness of other medications, including certain antidepressants and antihypertension medications.
Excessive dosages may be dangerous. Research suggests that 0.5 to 1.5 milligrams of melatonin is all that’s needed to aid in sleep, yet the vast majority of the melatonin supplements on the market are 3 milligrams or more. And because melatonin supplements are not regulated by the FDA, consumers can’t even be confident that the supplements they purchase contain the dosages claimed on the packaging.
Melatonin supplements may be risky for children. Children’s bodies produce tremendous amounts of melatonin naturally—much more than should be necessary for sleep.
Biggest concern now: Many melatonin users fail to reap any meaningful benefit from taking these supplements, because they take them at the wrong time and/or to overcome sleep problems that melatonin won’t solve.
People who take melatonin tend to do so right before they go to bed—but in pill or gummy form, it’s best taken 90 minutes before bedtime…or in liquid form, 30 minutes before bedtime.
And while melatonin supplements may be effective for people hoping to reset their sleep schedules after traveling to different time zones—and potentially also for people hoping to adjust their circadian rhythms to work a night shift—the evidence suggests that melatonin does not help with chronic insomnia and other sleep problems. These people would be much better-served by trying other treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).