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Before You Take Melatonin, Read This

Melatonin—a.k.a. “the sleep hormone”—is often touted as a cure for insomnia and other sleep issues. Available as an over-the-counter supplement, it’s an increasingly popular medication: Between 2007 and 2012, use of the drug more than doubled in the U.S., with some 3.1 million people taking it, according to research published last year in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. But should you really reach for a melatonin supplement at the first sign of sleep trouble?

Here’s what you need to know about melatonin and how to use it safely for better sleep.

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain’s pea-sized pineal gland. The body kicks up production when it’s dark out and curtails it during daylight. Because of that, melatonin plays a crucial role in helping your body maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.

In supplement form, people often use melatonin to ease nagging symptoms of insomnia or jet lag. Unlike other sleep medications, melatonin is attractive because it’s a hormone the body creates, so it’s less likely to lead to dependency.

How melatonin affects sleep

Because of melatonin’s role in circadian rhythm, it plays a natural role in sleep, and many otherwise healthy people reach for it as an aid to help them doze off.

Do melatonin supplements really work, though? According to a 2014 report in Nutrition Journal, “the use of melatonin by healthy adults shows promise to prevent phase shifts from jet lag and improvements in insomnia, but to a limited extent.” And a 2013 review of 19 studies of people with sleep disorders found melatonin slightly improved how long it took someone to fall asleep, how long they slept, and sleep quality.

But the research is mixed. A study published in The Journal for Clinical Research, for example, suggests clinicians not use melatonin as a treatment for either sleep onset (how quickly you fall asleep) or insomnia, and The National Sleep Foundation notes that when compared to the effects of a sugar pill, melatonin often shows no added power in helping with sleep, suggesting a strong placebo effect. Some research also finds oral melatonin has poor bioavailability in the body, meaning your body doesn’t always utilize everything in the supplement.

Beyond sleep: other potential melatonin benefits

While melatonin is mostly known for the role it plays in sleep, it has some other potential benefits as well.

The hormone also has antioxidant properties, something that has interested researchers who have begun to study melatonin’s potential role in boosting brain health, protecting against cell damage, and even keeping the heart healthy, says Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sleep expert.

“Oxidative damage to brain cells is believed to be a prime factor in age-related cognitive problems and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and others,” Breus explains. “Melatonin functions as a powerful antioxidant in the brain—but its antioxidant capabilities are not limited to the brain.” As an antioxidant, melatonin seems to have protective effects on the cardiovascular system and other physiological systems too, Breus says.

Another exciting realm of melatonin research? Its role in potentially treating some forms of cancer. Some emerging research finds that melatonin may be effective in reducing side effects of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and even slowing cancer’s spread.

While the science is still preliminary in many areas, melatonin is also being studied in relation to everything from irritable bowel syndrome to menopause, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, and other health conditions, says Breus.

“Our understanding of melatonin is expanding rapidly as scientists continue to study how the hormone works in the body, how it contributes to health and disease protection, and how melatonin may be used as a therapeutic treatment.”

When you should (and shouldn’t) reach for melatonin

While it’s far too soon to suggest melatonin as a prescription for many of the serious health conditions it could potentially help, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, research on the hormone does indeed indicate that melatonin in supplement form can help with both jet lag (taken two hours before your desired bed time) and sleep issues related to shift work.

If you’re going to try melatonin, start with the smallest dose and see how it works for you, advises Breus. Research suggests the below dosages have been shown to be beneficial for different circumstances, he notes.

  • For regulating your sleep-wake cycles: 0.3 mg to 5 mg
  • For insomnia: 2 to 3 mg
  • For jet lag: 0.5 mg to 8 mg starting when you arrive
  • For sleep-wake cycle disruptions: 2 mg to 12 mg

Of course, it’s important to note that because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements, it’s hard to be sure about exactly what you’re getting. One study, for example, found melatonin content varied from anywhere between 83% and 478% of the amount of melatonin suggested on the label.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, have a bleeding disorder, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, a seizure disorder, or if you have a transplant, it’s best to talk with your doctor before trying melatonin, says Breus.

Eating the right foods can help you catch those Z’s. Here are the best foods to eat for better sleep.

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor. She has worked on staff at both Shape and Men's Health and contributes regularly to a slew of national print and digital publications such as Women's Health, Condé Nast Traveler, and Furthermore for Equinox. With a degree in English and creative writing from the College of the Holy Cross, she has a passion for reporting on all things health, lifestyle, and travel.