Melatonin and Sleep: Dosage, Side Effects, and How it Works

Last updated on : June 12 2021

Woman sleeping on bed

Article Summary

Are you interested in how melatonin works, how it's used, and its possible side effects? If that's the case, this guide is the perfect introduction to using the supplement safely and with good results.

Jump to the section you want by using the links below. 

Sleep Disorders

What Is Melatonin

Melatonin Supplementation

Natural v Synthetic Sources

Supplement Dosage

Side-Effects of Melatonin Use

Alternatives to Melatonin Supplementation

Conclusion

Sleep Disorders

According to the Cleveland Clinic, 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders while almost 30% of the population don't get sufficient sleep. The implications of such a trend are anything but light. 

Sleep deprivation leads to numerous consequences. Everyone has some experience with fatigue, lack of focus, and mood swings following a poor night's sleep. 

However, when insufficient rest happens chronically, it can lead to long-term health issues like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. To top things off, it seems that the pandemic we've all been facing for the past year also has a detrimental effect on the quality of sleep we can get.

But what's the solution to avoiding all these consequences?

Well, one option would be to introduce behavioral changes, seek out counseling, and get to the root cause of the inability to fall or remain asleep.

However, there are a few quick fixes that can help when you find yourself in a pinch. Melatonin is one of those.

Are you interested in how melatonin works, how it's used, and its possible side effects? If that's the case, this guide is the perfect introduction to using the supplement safely and with good results.

What Is Melatonin

Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone generated by the human body.  

Controlled by the circadian rhythm, like many other hormones, melatonin production occurs in the pineal gland. It is released at night, signaling to the body and organs about it being time to go to sleep. 

What's interesting about melatonin production is that it has several highs and lows during a person's life. 

For example, babies only start producing melatonin at three or four months old. Its secretion is at its maximum between ages one and three, followed by a plateau and decline. 

According to some sources, by the age of 70, people's melatonin levels are a mere quarter of normal adult ranges, explaining the prevalence of sleep issues among the senior population.

Another fascinating thing about melatonin is that light sources significantly impact it. In fact, a light source of no more than 350 lux can suppress nocturnal melatonin levels, signaling just how important lighting is in the pursuit of high-quality sleep.

Of course, melatonin isn't exclusively a naturally occurring hormone. Since its discovery in the late 1950s, scientists have created a synthetic supplement form of the substance. 

The synthetic version is approved for over-the-counter sales in the US and Canada, while UK residents need a prescription to purchase it. It's approved for medical use in the EU, but not in the USA. 

Melatonin Supplementation

There are numerous ailments and conditions with which melatonin supplementation can help. 

Many research studies have been conducted on a variety of diseases. Unfortunately, most of these came up with insufficient or inconclusive evidence. 

With this in mind, melatonin supplementation for anything other than acute sleep disorders should only be taken when prescribed by a doctor.

Proven benefits:

●     Insomnia: The most common use of synthetic melatonin supplementation is to battle the effects of insomnia. As a short-term solution, it can be efficient at several things. It decreases the time needed to fall asleep, improves sleep quality, and has fewer adverse side-effects than most sleep medications. It might also help you to sleep when the weather is hot and uncomfortable.  

●     Jet lag: When traveling over more than one time zone, people can experience the effects of a disturbed circadian rhythm. In these cases, a melatonin supplement can help improve sleep.  

●     Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder & Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder: Some people suffer from sleep-wake phase disorders, where their biological clocks don't work the same way as for the rest of the population. This might mean that they tend to fall asleep and wake up later or that the disorder is a consequence of a condition such as blindness. When applied in these cases, melatonin supplementation helps regulate the circadian rhythm, especially if combined with phototherapy. 

●     Pre-surgery stress: Clinical trials show that melatonin use 24 hours before surgery can reduce anxiety. It also seems to have an opioid-sparing effect, reduces intraocular pressure, and prevents postoperative delirium. 

●     Sleeping disorders in children: Some studies suggest that melatonin supplements can help treat sleeping disorders in children. However, long-term use is still not recommended seeing how there's uncertainty about the possible effects on hormonal development.

Possible benefits:

●     Dementia & Alzheimer's: Almost 50% of people who have dementia and Alzheimer's experience the effects of sundowning. Although the studies researching the impact of melatonin are small-scale, they do show improvement in sleep quality. Furthermore, there is evidence of a decline in cognitive deterioration

●     Migraines: Some evidence is available showing that headache disorders can be caused by disrupted pineal gland function. With this in mind, melatonin treatment could be beneficial in preventing and treating migraines. 

●     IBS: As melatonin plays a role in gut motility and sensation, a small-scale study found that a supplement benefited patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

●     Endometriosis: A 2013 clinical trial showed positive results in treating endometriosis with melatonin. Supplement use reduced daily pain scores by 39%, dysmenorrhea by 38%, and the risk of using an analgesic by 80%. 

●     Antioxidant: Research shows that melatonin has a high potential at removing oxidative stress, reducing inflammation, and programmed cell death.

●     Supports Immune Function: Research shows that melatonin secretion enhances both innate and cellular immunity, which is why specialists can apply it in supporting the immune function of elderly individuals and patients with autoimmune disorders.

Natural v Synthetic Sources

What's impressive about melatonin is that it doesn't necessarily have to come from synthetic sources. In addition to the body's own production, we can also find it in several foods.

WebMD suggests the consumption of tart cherries, goji berries, eggs, milk, fish, and nuts as foods that either carry melatonin or support its production. Furthermore, some kinds of mushrooms, grains, and legumes also contain the hormone in significant amounts.

Supplement Dosage

When taking synthetic supplementation, the recommended daily dose of melatonin for adults is between 1mg and 5mg.

However, doctors recommend starting with as small an amount as possible, sometimes even as low as 0.5 mg. Generally, the advice is to increase the dosage in increments until the optimal amount is achieved. 

The best time to take melatonin is anywhere between 30 to 90 minutes before going to sleep. Again, reactions are highly individual, so some experimentation is required to come to an ideal routine. 

Side-Effects of Melatonin Use

While much safer than most sleep medication (both synthetic and natural), melatonin should be used with precaution. 

First and foremost, regular use can result in dependency. This is why we should never use it for longer than one month. Some advice is even stricter, setting the limit at 5 consecutive days of supplementation. 

Secondly, taking an oral supplement can cause some side effects. According to HealthySleep, these include: 

● gastrointestinal symptoms

● grogginess

● nausea

● dizziness

● headaches, 

● joint pain

● insomnia when used for prolonged periods. 

Moreover, it can have negative interactions with several drugs. These include anticoagulants, blood pressure medication, antidepressants, immunosuppressants, and diabetes medicines. 

Melatonin use is not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding, nor for children (unless prescribed by a physician).

Alternatives to Melatonin Supplementation

The best thing about melatonin is that it's unnecessary to take a supplement to experience the benefits. Some behavioral changes can improve natural production, which is precisely what most people should focus on.

First and foremost, those suffering from sleep disorders need to try and improve their sleep hygiene. This means sticking to a strict bedtime, turning the bedroom into a relaxing space, avoiding blue light at least 2 hours before sleep, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before sleep, and getting sufficient exercise.

Furthermore, if the insomnia is persistent, it's key to rule out any physical causes. Medical conditions that can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle include diabetes, heart disease, an overactive thyroid, GERD, restless leg syndrome, etc.

Moreover, some mental disorders can also lead to insomnia, most commonly depression and anxiety. In these cases, counseling and sufficient self-care are crucial steps in treating the root cause of insomnia instead of addressing its symptoms.

Finally, there are some fringe ways of naturally boosting melatonin. One would be to get sufficient sun exposure during the day, whether by going outside or using phototherapy. The second, to use blue-light blocking glasses at night. 

There's also the possibility of using lavender aromatherapy to induce a state of relaxation, which encourages the pineal gland to start production.

Conclusion

Woman holding pillow on bed

As you can see, there are both benefits and risks to using melatonin. Yes, it's a relatively safe form of supplementation with a long list of health perks. Nonetheless, it's far from being a compound you should ingest daily. 

On the whole, if you find yourself occasionally needing some help to fall asleep, then a small dose of melatonin can be a great choice. It can also be a way to bio-hack your health, especially if you're worried about immune function or cognitive performance.

But don't forget: it's not a supplement that should be used daily or in large doses. If you're suffering from a chronic sleep disorder or want to treat a condition with melatonin supplementation, you must consult with your doctor. They will advise you on the dosage, therapy length and assess any possible risks.

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