Does Melatonin Really Help You Sleep Better?

It seems like nowadays we're all looking for something to help us get to sleep faster and stay asleep longer. Our lives are so busy and we often find ourselves planning out our next day's actions when we should be dozing off. This results in restless nights—some might think I'm crazy, but I even keep Post-its next to my bed for when ideas come to mind! In order for us to get the recommended seven hours of zzz's per night, we turn to things like supplements, teas and medications; one of the most popular natural remedies being melatonin. But does it really work? Here, we get the inside scoop.

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According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), melatonin is a natural hormone made by your body's pineal gland, located just above the middle part of your brain. During the day, this gland is inactive, but at night, it is "turned on" and begins to actively produce melatonin, which is released into your blood. NSF says this typically occurs around 9 p.m. This causes melatonin levels in your blood to increase rapidly, making you feel less alert and more sleepy. 

"Melatonin is a hormone that helps control our sleep wake cycles," says Dr. Frank Lipman, wellness expert and founder of Be Well by Dr. Frank Lipman. "It helps to synchronize our circadian rhythms so that we're alert during the day and able to rest at night, but this natural production can be compromised by exposure to bright lights in the evening (phones, TVs and computers) because the body still believes it is light outside and the production of melatonin is stalled. People who have trouble falling asleep can benefit from melatonin supplements, taking them 30–60 minutes before bedtime."

Dr. Lipman says that these supplements work by offering the body additional melatonin and encouraging that sleepy feeling it should naturally feel in the evening. "Although melatonin is a natural hormone and safe when taken in the right dosage, it is probably not something you want to become dependent on, as it is not treating the root cause of sleep disruption," he adds. "Having said that, natural melatonin levels drop with age, so regular use in older people can offer great support. But, I don’t recommend it for children or pregnant and nursing women. Nor do I recommend long-term usage in younger people."

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You can find melatonin supplements in most drugstores and health food stores (it's the only hormone available in the U.S. without a prescription) and the NSF says the general dose is 1–3 mg, which can elevate your blood melatonin levels between 1–20 times the normal amount. Typical side effects are sleepiness, vivid dreams (sometimes hallucinations) and morning grogginess. Be sure to ask your doctor before adding melatonin into your regular routine, as the supplements may interact with certain medications like blood-thinners, birth control pills, diabetes meds and immunosuppressants.

"The best and safest way to support a good night’s sleep is to create a calming bedtime routine that can prepare your body for rest," says Dr. Lipman. "This may include creating an electronic sundown (turning off all phones, TVs and computers an hour before bed), taking a warm bath, listening to calming music, journaling, and/or enjoying a cup of calming herbal tea such as chamomile or lavender. In addition, there are a number of other supplements that may be helpful, including magnesium, glycine, valerian root, passion flower and L Theanine, to name a few. Because everyone is different, melatonin, or any other natural sleep support, may work differently from one person to the next. I recommend being mindful when trying such products and listening to your body to determine which is actually best for you."

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