Melatonin: Everything You Need To Know

Melatonin overview

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone occurring naturally in the body which is associated with sleep regulation and feelings of sleepiness. Ordinarily, melatonin is produced in the pineal gland when it gets dark, which your body-clock takes as a cue that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin is also often sold in capsule form, which the body metabolises to create feelings of sleepiness, and providing deep restful slumber.

Melatonin benefits

The body’s natural sleepiness and wakefulness hormone, melatonin in its synthetic form allows you to regulate your sleep-wake cycle and gain greater control over when you sleep. About 30m after being ingested, melatonin creates the natural, familiar feeling of late-night relaxation and drowsiness. Sleep quality is also improved, leading to an easier and refreshed waking.

Best melatonin dosage

An MIT study led by melatonin pioneer Prof. Richard Wurtman found conclusively that the optimal melatonin dosage is 0.3mg, which is 300 micrograms (mcg). The study found that melatonin is unusual in that it works better if you take less of it, and that higher doses will actually be less effective than smaller doses. Most commercial melatonin gets this wrong, and is sold in the 3mg – 5mg range, ten times over the optimal dosage.

Melatonin and circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms are the body’s roughly 24h cycles of time. The circadian rhythm of the sleep-wake cycle tracks when to wake and when to sleep. Your brain’s sleep centre takes its cues from how dark it is where you are, which is why bright lights can make it difficult to sleep. Melatonin is technically the hormone your brain uses for tracking that it’s dark, and so taking a synthesized amount of it tells your brain that it must be dark, and so it must be time to sleep. This means that even if it’s light outside, you can tell your brain that it’s time to sleep, perfect for if your sleep cycle needs to be regulated. For more information, see the Uses for melatonin.

Melatonin and safety

Melatonin side effects

Melatonin is a very safe, well studied compound. As with taking anything, it’s always worth being cautious as to any possible side effects, as they are not unheard of. Most common is mild headaches, and less commonly mild dizziness. We should also list drowsiness as a side-effect for completeness’ sake, but this is arguably the main draw! If you’re ever in doubt regarding new substances, always consult a healthcare professional.

Melatonin for children

Yes, melatonin can be used if your child is finding it difficult to get to sleep. It will work the same as with an adult, causing relaxing sleepiness within 40m of taking. It’s worth noting that whilst melatonin is well studied in adults, the long-term effects on children are unclear. Whilst there is some evidence of melatonin showing promise for improving sleep disorders in children, caution is encouraged as the precise effects of hormones in human development are still being understood. If you’re ever in doubt, consult a pediatrician or similar healthcare professional.

Melatonin and pregnancy

It is still safe to take melatonin if you’re pregnant, but it may be better to err on the side of caution with melatonin during pregnancy, simply because the effects on the child are unknown. Melatonin is likely far less harmful than nicotine or alcohol, but given that it is a hormone the long-term effects on foetal development are unclear. Taking melatonin whilst pregnant will still work as usual and you’ll experience the effects as normal. If you want to take melatonin for health purposes whilst pregnant, always consult a pediatrician or similar healthcare professional.

Uses for melatonin

Melatonin for jet lag

One of the big frustrations with travel is that the new time zones can badly clash with our sleep-wake circadian rhythm. Fortunately, melatonin can help you completely overcome jet lag, by being proactive (before you travel) or reactive (after you touch down), and better than sleeping pills, melatonin works through your body’s natural wakefulness mechanism.

For proactive sleep adjustment, the day before you travel find out what timezone you’ll be landing down in, and then take melatonin ~30m before what would be your usual bedtime in that timezone. That way you’ll sleep when it’s nighttime in your new timezone, and when you land you’ll already have moved your sleep cycle round.

For reactive sleep adjustment, after you’ve landed keep awake until nighttime in your new timezone, and take melatonin just ~30m before your desired sleeping time. Whilst ordinarily this would cause a frustrating disjunct between your body’s cycle and the time of day, melatonin helps you to reset this to your new timezone in one go.

Melatonin for insomnia

Insomnia is the inability to get to sleep, which can range from the fairly mild to the severe. This can be caused by anxiety, illness, and sometimes just having something stuck on your mind. Whatever the cause, melatonin can be used instead of sleeping tablets to induce a relaxing sleepiness using your body’s natural sleep mechanisms. Take one 0.3mg (300mcg) capsule ~30m before you want to sleep, or as soon as you have trouble sleeping, and your body will naturally get you ready to sleep.

Melatonin for shift work

Your body’s sleep-wake cycle is regulated by melatonin, which is in turn triggered by whether you’re in darkness or bright lights. If you’re working during the night you’re likely to be under bright lights, which causes your body to think that it must be daytime, therefore suppressing melatonin production. When it comes to actual daytime and you need to sleep, the daylight will also have this sleep-suppressing effect. Blackout curtains can reduce this effect, but sometimes you need a direct intervention. Taking melatonin directly will trigger your body’s sleep-readiness, inducing natural sleepiness within ~30m of taking.