Written by Benjamin Semmens (BHSc)
If you’re trying to get to better sleep quality right now, you’re not alone. And with the increasing rates of insomnia, it's no wonder why so many people are now choosing to supplement with melatonin!
Melatonin, a sleep hormone that your body naturally produces, can also be taken in the form of a supplement that’s been suggested to improve sleep, but does it actually work? are there any health risks linked to the use of melatonin? And is taking it even necessary if your body can produce it?
While the use of melatonin is considered to be safe short-term, the long-term effects of its use remains unknown! Not to mention the common side effects associated with the use of melatonin.
The good news is that you can easily increase your own natural levels of melatonin without having to take a supplement!
In this blog, you’ll learn all about what melatonin is, what it's used for, if it actually works, the risks of taking it, and how to boost your own levels of melatonin naturally!
What is melatonin used for and does it work?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland found in the brain that helps regulate your sleep/wake cycles known as your circadian rhythm.
Melatonin does this by signalling to your body that it's time to sleep, hence why it's known as your “sleep hormone”. As it gets darker, your body produces more melatonin, conversely, the lighter it is the less your body produces.
Melatonin supplements are most commonly used for sleep issues and insomnia. However, recent research suggests that melatonin may not be as effective for insomnia as once thought.
For example, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2017) and the American College of Physicians (2016) suggest that there’s not enough strong evidence on the effectiveness or safety of melatonin supplementation for chronic insomnia to recommend its use (1).
Shift workers are also known to take melatonin to help regulate their sleep/wake cycles, however, two reviews that assessed melatonin supplements on shift workers were small and researchers found the benefits for shifts workers inconclusive (1).
While the effects of melatonin supplements on sleep are still up for debate, they may however be effective for jet lag. Jet lag occurs when you travel across multiple time zones that can result in disturbed sleep, daytime tiredness, and impaired functioning. With research suggesting that melatonin supplements can help improve symptoms of jet lag (1).
What are the risks of taking melatonin?
One of the main concerns with the use of melatonin supplements is that over time your own production of melatonin will decrease causing dependence. While these effects are yet to be seen in short-term studies, long term use may still be an issue (2).
Generally, melatonin is safe to use short-term and it’s unlikely that you will become dependent, however, common side effects may include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness.
While the short-term use of melatonin is considered to be safe, more research is needed to understand the long-term safety of melatonin. Especially when it comes to children (3).
With the increase of sleep issues in children, many parents are now choosing to supplement their children with melatonin. The problem here is that melatonin was designed for adults and there’s a lot that remains unknown about its effects in children (4, 5).
Being that melatonin is a hormone, it's possible that it could affect many aspects of hormone development including puberty and menstrual cycles, but researchers are still not sure at this stage. At this stage, it may be best to avoid giving children melatonin.
The truth about melatonin supplements
One of the biggest concerns of supplementing with melatonin is that many people are buying their melatonin online.
While melatonin is available in Australia, you currently need a prescription unless you’re over the age of 55, with a unique form of melatonin being sold over-the-counter.
To save the hassle, many people are now skipping this laborious process and going straight to the internet to source their melatonin. This is a serious concern as the actual melatonin content found in many supplements has been found to be surprisingly inaccurate!
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine analysed 31 melatonin supplements and found that the amount of melatonin they contained often wildly varied from what was listed on the label, with the actual amount ranging anywhere from less than 80% to nearly 500% as much (6).
Researchers also found that the hormone serotonin was detected in 26% of the samples analysed. This could have potentially harmful effects for people with depression as many antidepressants work to increase serotonin levels in the brain that could result in serotonin syndrome.
If you currently take medications you may want to reconsider taking melatonin supplements that can interact with other medications including anticoagulants, antiplatelet drugs, anticonvulsants, contraceptive drugs, diabetes medications, and immunosuppressants. It’s important that you discuss with your doctor before deciding to take melatonin (7).
How you can increase melatonin levels naturally, without a supplement!
The awesome news is that your body already naturally produces melatonin, making the use of supplements unnecessary in most circumstances!
The easiest way to increase your own natural production of melatonin is by dimming the lights as it gets darker. When it comes to your electronics, you should either cease using them as it gets close to bedtime or alternatively use a blue light blocker or night mode.
You should also get plenty of sunlight in the morning and throughout the day that can help to regulate your melatonin production.
Managing stress is another simple way to increase your melatonin levels that can be achieved through exercise and mindfulness practices (eg. yoga & meditation).
If you are still having difficulty falling asleep, there are other herbs that have been shown to improve sleep quality with little to no side effects. These sleep-inducing herbs include valerian root, lemon balm, passionflower, and hops.
Should you be taking melatonin?
The effectiveness of melatonin supplements in sleep disorders such as insomnia and their use in shift workers is still up for debate, however, melatonin may be effective in reducing symptoms of jet lag.
While it's true that the short-term use of melatonin is considered safe, more research is needed to confirm its safety long-term, especially when it comes to children.
There are also many methods you can use to increase your own production of melatonin such as reducing light exposure, avoiding electronics at night, getting enough sunlight during the day, regular exercise, stress management techniques and sleep-inducing herbs.
The bottom line is that melatonin is safe to use short-term and may be effective so there's no harm in trying it. It’s important that you first speak to your doctor about a melatonin supplement to avoid dodgy products that are available online.
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If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org