Bedtime should be a time of total relaxation, allowing your body and mind to recover from the day’s activities. But, if you find yourself lying awake as you try to fall — or stay — asleep, you’re not the only one. Adults in the U.S. are sleeping less and less, according to a study that found sleep duration (or the total number of hours people spend asleep) trended downward between 2004 and 2017.
And that finding doesn’t just mean we’re likely to see a few more yawning faces in our morning meetings; a lack of sleep can be harmful to our overall health. Short sleep duration, which is defined as sleeping fewer than seven hours a night, is associated with a whole host of health issues, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and more.
Those of us who’ve struggled to fall (or stay) asleep know that simply trying harder to sleep isn’t exactly helpful, which explains why a growing percentage of U.S. adults take melatonin supplements in an effort to achieve those sweet dreams. But before you pop a new supplement, it’s important to understand what melatonin is, how it can aid sleep, and just how safe and effective it is.
Melatonin is a sleep hormone. The pineal gland in the brain produces it naturally in response to darkness, which is why we sometimes feel sleepier, earlier, as the days grow shorter in fall and winter. Melatonin plays an important role in regulating the body’s 24-hour internal clock (also known as the circadian rhythm).
Exposure to light can reduce the production of melatonin, so if you’re serious about setting yourself up for a successful night of sleep, it’s a good idea to limit your exposure to artificial light at night.
However, if reducing your light exposure leading up to bedtime doesn’t do the trick, you may want to consider these other natural ways to boost melatonin.
- Spend time in the sun
Sun exposure helps boost the production of serotonin, and since serotonin levels impact the body’s ability to produce melatonin, here’s your reminder to go ahead and step outside!
- Eat foods full of tryptophan
Sure, we all laugh about needing a nap after a big turkey dinner, but that joke is based on science. Turkey — along with chicken, peanuts, eggs, fish, soy products, and many seeds — all contain tryptophan, an amino acid known to boost serotonin. And as we just learned, serotonin is a key part of melatonin production.
- Add melatonin to your meals (maybe)
More research is needed to determine how helpful it is to eat foods containing melatonin when it comes to producing the hormone ourselves. However, since melatonin can be found in good-for-you foods — including apples, barley, beans, cucumbers, rice, and more — there’s really no harm in adding some to your diet.
Melatonin Supplement Basics
For some people, taking some or all of the steps outlined above is enough to get a solid night of sleep. But, if those actions haven’t paid off, it may be worth trying a melatonin supplement. Before you do, consider the following efficacy, safety, and dosage details.
A 2021 meta-analysis in the Journal of Neurology systematically reviewed the effect of melatonin on sleep quality by summarizing evidence from 23 randomized clinical trials. From that data, the researchers found that melatonin has positive effects on sleep quality. Adults with mental disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and some other diseases were excluded from the analysis, but those with respiratory diseases, metabolic disorders, and sleep disorders were included. In the subgroups studied, melatonin intervention was found to have a significant positive effect on sleep quality.
Of course, efficacy is only worth noting if the supplement is safe. For most people, short-term melatonin supplementation appears to be safe. As with any medication or supplement, individuals who take other medications should consult their doctor before adding melatonin to their routine; this precaution is particularly important for anyone with epilepsy or who takes blood thinners. Older individuals may be more likely than their younger counterparts to experience daytime drowsiness after taking melatonin the night before.
And there are some cases where melatonin supplements are simply not recommended. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends against its use in people with dementia, and it’s also not suggested for individuals who are pregnant or breastfeeding due to a lack of research. Long-term safety of melatonin use also lacks the proper research, so it’s best to stick to shorter-term usage.
Once you’ve determined that it’s safe for you to take melatonin supplements — a quick chat with your doctor can help you decide — there’s still the matter of getting the dosage right, which also has to do with timing. Because melatonin is sold in doses ranging from 1 to 10 milligrams (or even higher), and taking a higher dosage doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll sleep better, finding the right dose can be a little tricky.
In most cases, your best bet is to opt for the lowest dose possible, ideally starting with 1 milligram and increasing by an additional milligram each week (up to 10, but not more) until you find it easier to fall asleep. Melatonin typically takes 20 to 40 minutes to kick in, so while it won’t knock you out, the best time to take it is when you’re beginning to feel tired and can get in bed; you want to be fully at rest when you take melatonin so it can do the job without your body fighting against it.
One final — but important — detail to know about doses: Because melatonin is a supplement, it’s not regulated by the FDA in the same way a prescription drug would be. In other words, although there are federal regulations regarding the facility, manufacturing, labeling, and reporting of adverse reactions, there’s less regulation when it comes to the accuracy of the doses listed. In fact, according to a 2017 study, many melatonin supplements don’t actually contain the doses their labels state, with products ranging from more than 80 percent less than advertised to a whopping 478 percent more than the amount listed on the label. The study didn’t find a correlation between manufacturer or product type and accuracy of dose, so while you can’t control how closely your dose matches the label, simply being aware that the amount you take may differ from what’s listed is key.
Melatonin Can Aid Sleep, But it’s Best to Take Caution
Yup, melatonin can in fact help us fall and stay asleep. And that’s true for the type that naturally occurs in our bodies and the kind we can take in supplement form. With that said, it’s important to consider melatonin a temporary sleep helper, and check in with your doctor before you take it to make sure a melatonin supplement doesn’t interfere with any medications you take or conditions you have.