Melatonin is, strictly speaking, not a ‘sleeping tablet’. Melatonin is made by the body and is a naturally occurring hormone that increases at night. It is triggered by darkness and its levels remain elevated throughout the night until suppressed by the light of morning. It is involved in helping to regulate the ‘circadian rhythms’ (daily cycles) of various functions in the body. The hormone melatonin helps control our natural sleep-wake cycle.
Although most studies have found melatonin to be no more beneficial than a sugar pill (placebo), there have been some positive results when used to help with elderly people, those suffering with jet lag and night shift workers. Some experts however say that simple exposure to light at the right time, however, might be just as effective.
Some research suggests that melatonin supplements might be helpful in reducing the time it takes to fall asleep — although the effect is typically mild. Melatonin might be more effective for other types of sleep issues, such as delayed sleep disorder or sleep disorders affecting circadian rhythm. A melatonin supplement is sometimes advised for people over 55 years of age with persistent insomnia.
Using melatonin for sleep
If you’re considering taking melatonin supplements, check with your doctor first — especially if you have any health conditions. The correct dose depends on the intended use. For example, circadian rhythm sleep disorders are often treated with 0.5 milligrams of melatonin a day, while doses of 3 to 5 milligrams a day might be used to treat jet lag or reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. In addition, remember that melatonin is generally recommended for short-term use. The common recommended duration of treatment is for three weeks only. Some research indicates that longer term use might be appropriate in certain cases, however.
If you take melatonin, choose commercial supplements produced in a lab. Melatonin supplements made from animal sources might contain various contaminants. Don’t engage in activities that require alertness — such as driving or operating heavy machinery — for four to five hours after taking melatonin.
Side effects of melatonin
Generally melatonin has little risk of physical dependency but still has side effects. Most common side effect is morning dizziness, daytime sleepiness and headaches. Other, less common melatonin side effects, might include abdominal discomfort, mild anxiety, irritability, confusion and short-lasting feelings of depression. It may also worsen symptoms of depression and should not be used by those with severe liver damage.
To some extent experts disagree on melatonin and more studies are required on melatonin.