This is a supplement used to treat insomnia or other sleep problems, usually as a short term measure.
Natural melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain by the pineal gland. The hormone regulates sleep, and the supplement can be useful for people who can’t get to sleep easily, who are recovering from jet lag, or who do shift work.
When someone goes to bed but lies there asleep for hours before they fall over this is called ‘delayed sleep phase disorder’ – the body seems to want to delay sleep (and so delay waking time too) by three or more hours, often until about 2am. This is a common problem from middle age onwards. Melatonin supplements are used to cut the time it takes to fall asleep; prolonged release melatonin supplements are especially useful for those in older age groups. Shift workers too can benefit from melatonin supplements if they have to sleep during the day. (1)
The natural hormone melatonin is produced when the body needs to sleep, and is triggered by changes in light. Melatonin seems to have the same role in sleep for many living creatures. For some fascinating background on this, a New York Times science article explored recent research on the hormone:
“When the sun sets, the encroaching darkness sets off a chain of molecular events spreading from our eyes to our pineal gland, which oozes a hormone called melatonin into the brain. When the melatonin latches onto neurons, it alters their electrical rhythm, nudging the brain into the realm of sleep. At dawn, sunlight snuffs out the melatonin, forcing the brain back to its wakeful pattern again.
We fight these cycles each time we stay up late reading our smartphones, suppressing our nightly dose of melatonin and waking up grumpy the next day. ……
Scientists have long wondered how this powerful cycle got its start. A new study on melatonin hints that it evolved some 700 million years ago. The authors of the study propose that our nightly slumbers evolved from the rise and fall of our tiny oceangoing ancestors, as they swam up to the surface of the sea at twilight and then sank in a sleepy fall through the night.” (2)
The adverse effect of the night-time blue light from TV, computer, tablet or smartphone screens mentioned above is now well established, and there are now apps available which alter the light from these devices to reduce the effect. (One of these is called Flux – https://justgetflux.com/ )
Though there are claims that, in addition to helping with sleep melatonin can prolong human life or stop the effects of bodily aging there are no scientific studies which have confirmed this.
There seems to be no agreement over a ‘normal’ dose of this supplement.
” In adults, melatonin is taken in doses from 0.2 mg to 20.0 mg, based on the reason for its use. The right dose varies widely from one person to another. Talk to your doctor to learn the right dosage and to find out if melatonin is right for you.” (3)
They also say that lower doses (0.2 to 0.3mg) seem to work just as well as higher doses.
Another reason people take melatonin supplements is to experience the intense and vivid dreams it seems to promote. Various threads on the Fitness and Supplements sections of Reddit explore this phenomenon, which appears to be real. (4)
Melatonin supplements can be natural (made from animal sources) or synthetic (made in a laboratory) so you should bear this in mind and check the labels if you are a vegetarian or vegan. If melatonin is not available over the counter in your country, a good and effective alternative is Sour cherry.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – Melatonin in depth
- New York Times – The Evolution of sleep
- WebMD – Melatonin Overview
- Reddit – Melatonin