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Your Ultimate Guide to Melatonin

Here's what you need to know about this popular sleep aid—including whether or not it really works.

Contributing Writer
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Photography by: Dannko/Getty

Having a hard time getting to sleep? In some cases, melatonin supplements could help. "People with jet lag, shift work, and other circadian problems can benefit from the use of melatonin," says Dr. Pablo Castillo, MD, a Mayo Clinic neurologist who specializes in sleep medicine. Before you start adding melatonin to your nightly routine, here's what you need to know about the popular sleep aid.

 

Related: How to Find the Right Pillow for a Perfect Night's Sleep

 

What is melatonin?

It's a hormone naturally occurring in the body—our brain already produces melatonin, so taking melatonin supplements stimulates and increases the body's natural response to it. "Melatonin is a neurohormone produced predominately during the night, under natural light/dark conditions," Castillo says. "It stabilizes circadian rhythms, such as core temperature and sleep-wake rhythms. During the day, sunlight blocks the production of melatonin. After sunset, the onset of darkness is detected and concentrations of melatonin begin to rise. This increase of melatonin levels provides a signal to the body." That signal? That it's time for bed.

 

How much melatonin should you take?

In general, you can start by taking up to three milligrams, says Dr. Daniel Barone, MD, a neurologist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell. It should take effect in about one and a half hours. (And if your problem isn't falling asleep initially but staying asleep, look for controlled-release melatonin.) 

 

Is it safe?

Melatonin is safer than other prescription drug aids, Castillo says. However, when taking melatonin, you'll want to avoid alcohol and other sedating drugs. The use of certain antidepressants is not compatible with melatonin, and melatonin safety during breastfeeding hasn't been established so it's best to avoid, he adds. Long-term use of melatonin for adults shouldn't be a problem, as long as serious sleep conditions have been ruled out, Barone says. But in some people, Castillo says the initial good response to melatonin decreases within a few months of first taking it.

 

People with breathing problems should be evaluated by a sleep specialist before any sedating medications are prescribed, and children shouldn't take it in the long-term, at least until after puberty, as it could affect sexual hormones. Aside from that, as long as you know you don't have a chronic sleep condition that should first be checked out with a doctor, taking melatonin in certain circumstances—during a long flight, or adjusting to a new sleep schedule, for example—should be just fine.  

 

Are there side effects?

Melatonin can make you feel tired or drowsy the next day, Barone says, as it can have a "hangover" effect. And some people report having more nightmares after taking melatonin.