Melatonin: Sleep Like a Baby With This
Do you find yourself tossing and turning at night, counting sheep in a fruitless effort to sleep?
Are you dragging all day long – but then wide awake again come bedtime?
Do you travel so much that jet lag has become just another “normal” part of your life?
You’re not alone. According to polls, at least a quarter of American adults say they get less than 7 hours of sleep on weeknights. No wonder so many of us are walking around like zombies!
And no wonder so many people find themselves turning to over-the-counter and prescription pills, which can leave you groggy, spaced out – and worse, dependent on them.
At the same time, your body needs adequate sleep to restore and rejuvenate itself.
The idea of natural sleep aid that’s free of major side effects and isn’t addictive sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it?
But does it really work?
Perchance to Sleep…
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by a part of the brain called the pineal gland. The hormone was isolated from this gland in 1958 by Dr. Aaron Lerner, a Yale researcher who thought it might play a role in skin pigmentation.
He was wrong, though. As later research revealed, melatonin’s primary role involves helping to maintain our sleep/wake cycle, also know as our circadian rhythms.
It works like this: The pineal gland synthesizes and secretes melatonin in response to messages from the retina in the eye.
This process is strongly influenced by light. See, melatonin secretion increases as the sun sets, reaching peak levels between 2 am and 4 am. Melatonin is much lower during the day, when light is at its brightest. This cycle is what makes you feel sleepy at night and awake during the day – hopefully.
Of course, increased exposure to artificial light at night, as well as travel through different time zones and work that requires us to work night shifts, can wreak havoc on melatonin production.
That’s a big reason why it may be hard to fall asleep at bedtime.
As you might imagine, that makes supplemental melatonin a promising treatment for insomnia, jet lag, and other sleep-related problems.
But does it really work?
Let’s see what the studies say.
Get More Zs…
Not surprisingly, the majority of research into supplemental melatonin has focused on its ability to promote sleep – and the results are generally pretty impressive.
There’s good evidence that melatonin can help combat jet lag. For example, one double-blind, placebo-controlled trial looked at the effects of melatonin supplements on 320 people for 4 days after a long plane trip. The participants took either 5 mg of standard melatonin, 5 mg of slow-release melatonin, 0.5 mg of standard melatonin, or a placebo pill daily.
The results? Researchers found that people who took 5 mg of standard melatonin slept better, took less time to fall asleep, and felt more energetic and awake during the day than people in the other three groups.1
And another study of airplane crews found that people who took 10 mg of melatonin experienced improved rest and other benefits similar to those of the drug zopliclone, compared to people who took a placebo. Melatonin didn’t interfere with mental function the following morning.2
Melatonin also appears to help people with insomnia get more shuteye.
Several studies have shown melatonin reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. In one study, for instance, people with insomnia who took 2 mg of melatonin at bedtime for 3 weeks fell asleep faster and felt like they slept better and were more energetic in the morning than those took a placebo.3
The supplement also seems to help improve sleep in people with specific medical problems that keep them awake at night, including diabetes, head injury, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit disorder. It may also benefit shift workers, although research findings have been mixed.5,6
Plus, melatonin may help people wean themselves off of benzodiazepine drugs for sleep: One double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 34 people who regularly took benzodiazepines found that taking 2 mg of melatonin nightly helped them discontinue the drug.5
Preliminary But Promising…
Researchers are still learning about the role melatonin might play in cancer treatment, but the evidence so far is quite positive.
For example, in one double-blind study, researchers gave 30 people with advanced brain tumors standard radiation treatment, with or without 20 mg of melatonin daily. After one year, 6 of 14 people in the melatonin group were still alive, compared with just 1 of 16 from the control group. The melatonin group also had fewer side effects due to the radiation treatment, suggesting a higher quality of life.4,6
Although evidence is still preliminary, investigators believe that melatonin may work by increasing levels of the body’s own tumor-fighting proteins, known as cytokines. This is an extremely exciting finding, and if it can be replicated may pave a path toward innovative cancer treatment.
Keep in Mind…
Melatonin supplements appear safe when taken even in high doses. The typical recommended dose is 1 to 3 mg at bedtime.
The product may cause mild side effects, such as stomach upset, nausea, and impaired balance and mental function, within a few hours of taking it, so you shouldn’t use melatonin if you will be driving or operating machinery within several hours of taking it. However, it doesn’t appear to affect function the day after taking it.
You may want to avoid melatonin if you have an autoimmune condition, take anticoagulants (such as warfarin) or drugs used to treat high blood pressure, or are pregnant or nursing.
Otherwise, if insomnia or jet lag is interfering with your “z”s, consider taking a melatonin supplement at bed and see if it helps.
Of course, a good night’s sleep shouldn’t just depend on supplements. Although melatonin seems effective, it should be thought of as a temporary fix or part of a broader plan to improve sleep. It’s not a one-stop solution.
Instead, practice good sleep hygiene to get to the root of your insomnia. That means using your bedroom only for sleep and sex, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (even on weekends), and aiming for 7 to 9 hours of shuteye.
You can also boost your melatonin levels naturally by dimming your lights a few hours before bed, investing in blackout curtains or shades, and wearing a sleep mask. Don’t forget to turn off or move your smart phone, tablet, or laptop – their bright lights can interfere with sleep, as can the stress of constantly checking your email. And practice some form of relaxation an hour or so before bed, whether that means taking a hot bath, doing a few stretches, or meditating.
Do this in conjunction with a little melatonin before bed, and in time you will reset your circadian rhythms. Before you know it you’ll be sleeping like a baby.
Remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1Suhner A, Schlagenhauf P, Johnson R, Tschopp A, Steffen R. Comparative study to determine the optimal melatonin dosage form for the alleviation of jet lag. Chronobiology international. Nov 1998;15(6):655-666.
2Paul MA, Brown G, Buguet A, et al. Melatonin and zopiclone as pharmacologic aids to facilitate crew rest. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine. Nov 2001;72(11):974-984.
3Wade AG, Crawford G, Ford I, et al. Prolonged release melatonin in the treatment of primary insomnia: evaluation of the age cut-off for short- and long-term response. Current medical research and opinion. Jan 2011;27(1):87-98.
4Lissoni P, Meregalli S, Nosetto L, et al. Increased survival time in brain glioblastomas by a radioneuroendocrine strategy with radiotherapy plus melatonin compared to radiotherapy alone. Oncology. Jan-Feb 1996;53(1):43-46.
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