Melatonin is one of the most popular sleep aid supplements on the market today. This product earns the companies that sell it over $425 million a year. But the question remains: is it safe?
To answer that question, we first have to look at what exactly melatonin is. Melatonin is a natural hormone created and released by the pineal gland. Corresponding melatonin receptors absorb it from the bloodstream to regulate the circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock).
Sometimes, the body has trouble maintaining proper melatonin levels. This can be due to a number of factors like jet lag, bright artificial lighting at night, and blue lights from screens. It’s also caused by some diseases like type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders, mood disorders, or certain cancers.
Further, insomnia is one of the most common ailments in the US. Many Americans are chronically sleep-deprived and looking for solutions. All this leads many to turn to medications and supplements for relief.
The number of melatonin users in America has exploded in recent years. Over 3.5 million Americans used melatonin in 2019, and that figure is growing every year. Marketers flaunt the safety of their products. But the evidence doesn’t back these claims. Unlike your daily multivitamin, melatonin is a powerful hormone that has significant impacts on the body. This means its safety isn’t guaranteed no matter its dosage.
Unwanted Side Effects of Melatonin
Melatonin is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for any use. Instead, it is classified as a dietary supplement. Its ingredients are not subject to very stringent quality controls. Labels are often inaccurate because of this lack of oversight. This leads people to take overly large doses of melatonin, which can sometimes sicken them.
This hormone is so potent it’s only available through prescription in many countries. Yet it’s in the vitamin aisle in just about every pharmacy and grocery store in the US. This can deceive consumers into thinking this drug is harmless when it’s anything but.
The side effects of taking melatonin in any dose can range from mild to severe. They include:
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Morning grogginess and daytime drowsiness
- Joint pain
- Vivid dreams
- Insomnia (Long term melatonin use can cause the issue it’s intended to treat. It disrupts the body’s normal hormone response.)
Melatonin is even more unsafe when combined with certain prescription medications. These include:
- Anticoagulant drugs
- Blood pressure medications
- Diabetes medicines
- Seizure medications
Melatonin supplements can also cause problems for people who have certain conditions. These include high blood pressure, low blood pressure, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, seizure disorders, and mood disorders.
Since melatonin can reduce the efficacy of certain prescription drugs and cause negative drug interactions, it’s best to avoid it.
You should always speak with your doctor before altering your medication regimen. Seek medical help for all emergencies.
Other Dangers of Melatonin Supplement Use
There are other safety concerns with melatonin use besides side effects and interactions.
One such concern is its impact on your endocrine system’s sensitivity to its own melatonin. After years of habitual use, your body can grow less sensitive to both its own version of melatonin and external versions. This may lead to a reduction in your body’s ability to respond to both.
There are many “unknowns” about the effects of melatonin on the body after long-term use. It has not been studied for that purpose. We don’t know how it impacts young children during their development or how it impacts long-term users as they age. Melatonin sleep supplements have only been popular since the late 1980s. Meaning society has yet to see a lot of its impacts on older people who’ve used it for a lifetime.
Insomnia can also be caused by underlying medical conditions. These include Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, sleep apnea, diabetes, and heart disease. If you experience unexplained insomnia, it’s better to see a doctor to rule out underlying causes.
Tips for Better Sleep Without Melatonin
Since sleep medications have so many side effects and risks, many people might wonder if there’s another remedy for their insomnia. The answer is sleep hygiene!
Sleep hygiene isn’t a medicine or supplement. Rather, it’s a series of habits you can follow every day to promote deep sleep and maintain it for a lifetime. These techniques can help you regulate your circadian rhythms. They also can teach your body how to fall and stay asleep on its own.
Good sleep hygiene practices include:
- Keep your bedroom cool. A cooler bedroom promotes more restful sleep by helping lower your core temperature. The ideal sleep temp is between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Install blackout curtains to block light pollution. Outdoor lights coming into windows can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle.
- Eat foods high in magnesium and other foods for sleep. Many foods contain the vitamins and minerals we need for better sleep.
- Ensure you’re getting enough exercise. The CDC recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise per week. Exercise carries huge benefits for sleep. So if you’re sedentary, you’re probably going to experience worse insomnia.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time all week long. This ensures you’re not disrupting your body’s natural sleep schedule.
- Avoid caffeine after lunch. Caffeine has an elimination half-life of up to 9.5 hours. It can stay in your bloodstream for a long time after you consume it. That diet soda you had at 2 p.m. could easily be keeping you up after midnight.
- Have a set bedtime routine that includes relaxation. This could be anything from taking a warm bath to reading a book. Whatever helps you feel calm, you should do it for at least 30 minutes before bed. Eventually, this habit can help provide a signal to your brain that it’s time to start winding down. Remember that your bedtime routine shouldn’t include screens. Their backlights can impede natural melatonin production.
You can overdose on melatonin, leading to severe side effects that can impact your whole body. Because of this and other safety concerns, it’s best to avoid melatonin entirely. Melatonin is not a vitamin or a mineral. It is a hormone. This means it has the potential to impact the endocrine system.
Worse still, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of melatonin is the fact that it’s just not very effective. Studies have shown that melatonin only helped insomnia patients fall asleep 7 minutes faster. Melatonin regulates the body clock rather than initiating sleep by simply making you feel “sleepy.” This means it is not an effective treatment for people suffering from the inability to fall asleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has not recommended it for that purpose.
If you really want to fall asleep fast and stay asleep all night, you have to invest in more than a quick fix. You have to maintain good sleep hygiene, eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise, and use a high-quality mattress.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.