Sleep is vital for your overall health and well-being. Unfortunately, it is estimated between 50 to 70 million Americans experience sleep issues and do not get their recommended amount of healing slumber.

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by your brain to help you get the sleep you need. It is produced in response to darkness and helps set your circadian rhythm -- your body’s internal clock that tells you when to sleep and wake. If your body is not producing enough melatonin, your sleep can be disrupted, and you may have trouble falling or staying asleep. 

According to the Institute of Health Sciences, there are several factors that can reduce melatonin production, including:

  • shift work
  • jet lag
  • alcohol
  • caffeine
  • stress
  • blood sugar imbalances
  • exposure to light
  • lack of sleep 

Is taking a melatonin supplement safe?

When sleep is disrupted, some individuals turn to melatonin supplements, a synthetic form of melatonin that is created in a lab. Like other dietary supplements, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates melatonin, but supplements are not held to the same standards as prescription or over-the-counter drugs and are not “approved” for any specific use. 

However, the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (NCCIM) reports that many studies have been conducted on the use of melatonin for help with insomnia and other sleep disorders. Evidence suggests that melatonin supplements are safe for short-term use and can help promote improved sleep when taken at recommended dosages. It is important to note that less is known about safety when melatonin is used long-term. 

Side effects of melatonin

Many individuals can take melatonin with little to no side effects. Some of the most common side effects of melatonin include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • drowsiness

Other less common side effects of melatonin include:

  • depression
  • mild tremor
  • mild anxiety
  • abdominal cramps
  • irritability
  • reduced alertness 
  • confusion or disorientation

How and when to take melatonin

If you are experiencing trouble sleeping, taking melatonin may help. Things to remember when taking melatonin:

  • Dosage: Generally, the proper dosage is from one to five milligrams. Taking extra will not improve your sleep. Follow the label instructions and start at the lowest dose. Because it affects everyone differently, you may have to increase your dosage gradually to help you fall asleep, but not so much that you experience any side effects. 
  • Timing: Take 30 minutes before bedtime. Melatonin is fast-acting and will have you feeling sleepy within 20 to 40 minutes. Melatonin will stay in your system for about five hours.
  • Shift workers: If you work the night shift, getting to sleep can be difficult because you are trying to sleep during the day, when your brain is not producing melatonin. To help shift workers feel sleepy, take melatonin at the end of your shift, but not before driving home. 
  • Five-hour rule. Because melatonin can cause daytime drowsiness, make it a rule to never drive or use machinery within five hours of taking the supplement.

Melatonin precautions 

There are some conditions and medications that may interact with melatonin supplements. Melatonin should be avoided if you:

  • have an autoimmune disease or are taking immunosuppressant medications.
  • are pregnant. Currently there is not enough research to know if it is safe to take melatonin during pregnancy. You can learn more about that in this article from the Sleep Foundation. If you are pregnant and having trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor. 
  • are breastfeeding. Again, there is not enough research to know if melatonin is safe to use when breastfeeding and should be avoided. 
  • are taking blood thinning medications such as warfarin or heparin.
  • have high blood pressure and are taking blood pressure medications (especially nifedipine).
  • have diabetes. Talk to your doctor before using melatonin as it could affect your blood sugar levels.
  • use contraceptive drugs, as there might be an increased sedative effect from using melatonin.

The importance of sleep 

Sleep is the time your body requires to relax and recover and prepare you for the next day. It is recommended that adults get between seven to nine hours of sleep each night. For those who experience sleep disturbances, there are things you can do to naturally improve your chances of a better night’s sleep. Learn more about how to improve your sleep hygiene.  

If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor or contact our Sleep Disorders Center

Lifespan Blog Team

The Lifespan Blog Team is working to provide you with timely and pertinent information that will help keep you and your family happy and healthy.