Melatonin: What Happens to Your Body When You Take It
Increasingly, people are turning to melatonin supplements as an over-the-counter remedy for trouble sleeping. But do the pills really work, and are they safe?
Melatonin helps control sleep
About 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems, according to the CDC. Eager for a cure, many people are trying the much-hyped supplement melatonin to promote sleep—the National Health Interview Survey found that its use in the United States more than doubled between 2007 and 2012. But what exactly is melatonin? Produced naturally by our body, melatonin is a hormone that lets us know it’s time for sleep. “Naturally produced internal melatonin does not induce sleep—is it the biochemical signal of darkness and tells the brain that it’s night, and in humans, night is associated with sleep,” says Steven Lockley, PhD, scientific advisor for Lighting Science. It’s released by the body in the hours before bed, helping to regulate our sleep/wake cycle. Here are 7 things you need to know about melatonin before taking it.
Supplements may regulate circadian rhythms
Because of how it affects sleep, the theory is that supplementing with melatonin, the only over-the-counter hormone available in the United States, can help people who have trouble falling asleep. However, scientific research has only shown it to strongly help when a person’s natural melatonin is out of whack—this happens to people who work at night or have jet lag. “Melatonin can make us sleepy but it is not a very good hypnotic unless you are trying to sleep at the ‘wrong’ circadian phase, such as a shift worker sleeping in the daytime, or trying to sleep at a new time zone after international travel,” Dr. Lockley says.
It doesn’t always work
Scientific studies are mixed on how well it works for general sleep problems—even though there are insomnia sufferers who report that taking melatonin helps them. “It is mildly beneficial in the treatment of long-term insomnia or sleep disorders,” says pharmacist Dave Walker, RPh, Medical Advisory Board member of the non-profit MedShadow Foundation that tracks medications and side effects. But if you’re a night owl with delayed sleep phase disorder, research does show taking melatonin may help you fall asleep at a more normal time and get up for work without feeling like a zombie. Here are more sleep tips for when you have insomnia.