How Does Melatonin Work?

The world is sleep-deprived, and the numbers associated with sleep deprivation are positively alarming. According to the American Sleep Association, 1 in 3 adults are affected by some type of sleeping disorder, including insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and sleep deprivation.

Millions of people suffer from various forms of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is the cumulative effect of not getting the proper amount of sleep. Lack of sleep leads to a laundry list of health issues and negatively affects the body, brain, moods, and cognitive functions.

Even if you’re not currently affected by any of the aforementioned sleep issues, something is keeping you awake at night or causing you to toss and turn while trying to fall asleep. Why else would you be reading an article about how melatonin works?

If you’re looking for a way to fall asleep faster at night, melatonin supplements are a safe option. Here’s a brief explanation of how melatonin is created in the body, the types of people who should consider taking melatonin, and the possible side effects of melatonin consumption.

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What Is Melatonin?

Illustration of melatonin in brain.
Human brain hormones illustration poster.

Unlike other medications and over-the-counter sleep remedies, melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the brain’s pineal gland. The brain responds to the increased darkness – working together with your body’s circadian rhythm – as the sun goes down by slowly producing melatonin. The more elementary term for the circadian rhythm is our body’s “internal clock.”

The production of melatonin tells the body that it’s time to go to sleep soon.

Due to the typical adult lifestyle, certain habits will increase our exposure to light, blocking the natural production of melatonin in the brain. Activities like watching TV, working on a computer, or scrolling our smartphones will all produce unnatural light that prevents melatonin production in the brain. This increased exposure to short-wavelength visible light, or blue light, is the reason sleep experts suggest stopping TV watching and putting away smartphones and devices a few hours before bed and turning your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary.

Who Should Take Melatonin?

Man taking small white pill.
Getty Images - Man taking small white pill.

Melatonin is an appropriate sleep aid for people who have trouble falling asleep at night or staying asleep throughout the night.

Melatonin is a possible remedy for self-created sleep issues such as a disruption in a sleep schedule, changing work shifts, weekends of staying up late and sleeping in, and even jet lag. Melatonin will not help alleviate issues of insomnia, sleep apnea, or narcolepsy.

Natural melatonin production in the brain decreases with age, making the supplement a popular recommendation for older adults having trouble falling or staying asleep.

It’s important to note that melatonin does not put a person to sleep, unlike other sleep remedies. Still, research shows that increasing the amount of melatonin in the body significantly reduces the length of time it takes for a person to fall asleep.

Melatonin dosage varies by person, but experts suggest starting with the lowest possible dose and gradually increasing until finding an amount that works best for helping fall asleep with few side effects in the morning.

The melatonin found in supplements is either a synthetic or a natural form. These supplements are made from the pineal glands of animals. There are even some foods that contain melatonin. The dosages range from 1 milligram up to 10 milligrams. Melatonin supplements are available in pill form, dissolvable tablets, or gummies. Contrary to popular belief, taking a higher dosage of melatonin will not help a person sleep better.

Melatonin supplements should be avoided by people on certain types of medications, specifically, drugs that thin the blood, treat diabetes or blood pressure, and drugs that suppress the immune system. It should also be avoided by people suffering from depression or dementia, and women on birth control.

Does Melatonin Have Side Effects?

A man sleeping peacefully in his bed getting a good night's sleep.

Melatonin is relatively safe, but there are a few side effects with extended use of the supplement. These side effects include the feeling of not being “fully awake” for the first few hours of the day, headaches, crankiness, dizziness, and an overall foggy feeling.

As with any supplement, it’s essential to know when to stop using melatonin as a way to fall or stay asleep. If taking melatonin before bed isn’t helping, and sleep problems still occur, stop using the supplement and consult a doctor for other possible remedies.

On the flip side, even if melatonin is working, attempting to fall asleep without taking a supplement for a few nights is advised. This reduces the possibility that your body will build a tolerance to the supplement, and it will work better to avoid future sleep issues.

There hasn’t been much research done on the long-term effects of melatonin usage, but the short-term use of melatonin supplements is a safe option for a better night’s sleep.

As with any changes in diet or lifestyle, consult a physician before using melatonin.

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