Melatonin : Understanding The Benefits and Risks

Millions of people across the world struggle to fall asleep at night. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have known the frustration of staring at the ceiling for hours, wondering if we’ll ever sleep again.

While there are many possible ways to help yourself get better sleep, one of the most popular involves taking melatonin. It’s easy enough to buy a bottle from your local natural food store and start taking it, but whether this is the right choice for you depends on many factors.

Melatonin works great for some people and causes problems for others. Everything you need to know to make an informed choice is right here.

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What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the human brain. This gland is roughly the size of a pea and is located just above the middle of the brain. It secretes many hormones, so making melatonin is only part of its job.

Melatonin helps regulate sleep/wake cycles. It doesn’t make you fall asleep, but it functions as a signal to tell your body that it’s time for bed. It’s known as the sleep hormone, but it is also a powerful antioxidant that’s found in the eyes, bone marrow, and gut as well as in the brain.

How Does Melatonin Work?

The body’s circadian rhythm tells the pineal gland how much melatonin to make, and production is directly linked to how much natural light the body is taking in. As the sun goes down, melatonin production gradually rises. When it’s time to fall asleep, melatonin levels are at their highest. They stay high through the night, then go down once the body is exposed to light.

While light is the main indicator to the pineal gland that it’s time to start or stop melatonin production, your body’s internal clock also plays a role. If you usually go to bed at 9 PM, your body will maximize melatonin production to help you fall asleep then. If you usually go to bed at 1 AM, it will maximize production around that time.

This is why it can be hard to train yourself to go to bed earlier or later, and part of why jet lag is so difficult. If it’s getting dark but it’s not your usual bedtime, your body won’t produce its normal amount of melatonin. Even if you want to go to bed a couple hours earlier than usual, your body won’t have maximized its production, yet, and so it will be harder to fall asleep.

Research hasn’t yet shown exactly how melatonin works, but they know that it tells your body when it’s time to rest. When production is up, you feel sleepy, you might yawn a lot, and you generally feel like it’s time to rest.

Melatonin also helps lower your blood pressure and your body temperature, both of which happen when you fall asleep. It also helps you relax by binding to receptors in your brain that reduce nerve activity, and it helps lower dopamine levels, which helps you rest.

Most people make plenty of melatonin to sleep well. However, several things can throw it off. Exposure to blue light via electronic devices at nighttime can lower production, as can not getting enough sunlight during the day. Working nights can mess up melatonin production, along with stress and aging.

The Risks of Melatonin Supplements

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Many people know of Melatonin as a supplement that can be taken to help induce sleep. Melatonin sleep aids are rapidly growing more popular, with over 3 million Americans reportedly using them to help fall asleep according to the CDC.

The growing use of Melatonin necessitates a better understanding of potential pitfalls of its use a supplement. Generally speaking, melatonin is safe to take, especially as a short-term supplement to help you fall asleep earlier to get back on schedule when you’re jet-lagged.

However, it can have side effects that you feel the next day. These include:

  • Sleepiness during the day. If you take too much melatonin, don’t time it right, or are particularly sensitive to it, you may feel sleepy long after you wake up.
  • Upset stomach. Because melatonin is also found in the gut, taking more than you usually have in your system can cause stomach aches and minor upset stomach.
  • Depression and anxiety. Since melatonin affects dopamine levels, having more in your system than usual can cause you to feel depressed or anxious. This is usually not long-lasting, but it can be distressing while it does last, especially if you don’t usually experience those feelings.
  • Headache and dizziness. Researchers aren’t sure why, but some people who take melatonin supplements experience these symptoms the next day. If you have them, it means you took too much melatonin or you are particularly sensitive to it.

If you experience these side effects when you take melatonin, talk to your doctor. You may need to take a smaller dose, or you may want to find another way to deal with your insomnia.

Using Melatonin Safely

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Before you use melatonin, and especially if you’re looking to use it long-term, you should talk to your doctor. It interacts badly with some medications. Thes include blood thinning medications, diabetes drugs, birth control pills, and drugs that suppress the immune system.

The particular interaction between these drugs and melatonin will depend on exactly which drug you’re taking and the dose. You and your doctor can decide if the risks are worth you getting more sleep. If not, you can always come up with another plan.

Make sure, too, that you are taking a dose of melatonin that works for you. Different people need different doses, so you will need to figure out what works for you. Start with a low dose, as low as 0.3 mg if you can find it. If that doesn’t help, work your way up to no more than 5 mg per night. If your struggle is with waking in the night, try starting with 2 mg and work up to as much as 12 mg per night.

Once you’ve determined your dose, you can take it long-term as long as you don’t experience side effects. You should find yourself falling asleep easier and staying asleep all night long.

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