Having trouble sleeping is a universal problem, whether it’s related to the stress of school and work, travel, or a change in schedule. In many of these cases, the issues have a lot to do with not practicing good enough sleep hygiene.
But if you’re doing everything right and you’re still having problems, medications and supplements can help. Nyquil, Benadryl, or other medications are common solutions—but those looking for something more natural turn to melatonin, a substance already found in the body naturally.
The big question is: Does it actually work and help you sleep? The answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.” Here’s what you need to know.
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is produced in the brain to regulate sleep-wake cycles. In short, it helps wind what people call your “internal clock.” Based on the amount of light from your environment—i.e., when the sun goes down—melatonin levels increase and make you feel less alert, indicating to your brain that it’s time to sleep. Levels stay elevated all night, and when there’s a sharp increase in light (such as sunrise), the levels decrease so you can wake up without feeling sleepy.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. The problem with this natural cycle is that it can be very sensitive to disruptions, such as with jet lag. In this case, the light cues have all shifted in time. Day to day, artificial indoor light can be bright enough to prevent melatonin from naturally releasing too. In turn, your brain and body don’t realize it’s time to rest.
When do I use it?
So where does melatonin supplement come in? Dr. Sabra Abbott, an assistant professor of neurology who specializes in sleep medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says it isn’t for everyone.
“Very rarely do I use it just as a medication to get people to fall asleep,” she says. “It tends to work really well when the goal is to change the time someone falls asleep.”
On the other hand, she says, melatonin “doesn’t do a lot if you just have insomnia”— the condition when one has trouble falling asleep at all because his or her brain is constantly thinking, active, awake. Melatonin doesn’t shut off this hyper-alert state of mind; it only makes you feel sleepier earlier than the time at which you normally would.
For instance, if you naturally stay up until 3 a.m. everyday, but you wake up for school or work at 8 a.m., it makes sense to shift your sleep time forward to get more than five hours of rest. Melatonin can help with tweaking your sleep schedule night by night.
How do I use it?
Dr. Abbott suggests “[Taking] melatonin about five hours before you currently fall asleep, and trying to fall asleep about an hour earlier each day.”
If you’re trying to fall asleep at 10 p.m. instead of 3 a.m., you should take melatonin at 10 p.m., then try falling asleep at 2 a.m. the first night. Every night afterward, go to bed an hour earlier, all while taking melatonin at 10 p.m., until you get to your target time. (This can take several days to accomplish.)
Where do I get it and is it safe?
Melatonin can be prescribed or it can also be found over the counter. As far as we know, there are no long-term side effects—but melatonin is considered a supplement, not a drug, so it’s worth noting that there are currently no FDA regulations for OTC options.
One common side effect is increased mental fogginess the morning after, almost like a hangover. (In our bodies, levels of melatonin are measured in pictograms, which is one billionth of a millogram. So the difference in dosage of pills—which come in 3, 5, or 10 mg—is huge.) Try decreasing the dosage if you experience this.
There’s another surprising side effect, Dr. Abbott says: “People most commonly complain about having vivid dreams, strange enough that people will stop taking it.” No one knows yet why this happens.
Should I try it?
To decide whether melatonin is right for you, you need to know why you’re not getting good sleep. If you’re having trouble falling asleep at a good time (and can handle any strange dreams), melatonin is your best bet. If you have insomnia or can’t sleep for other reasons, it’s best to review your basic sleep habits or consult a specialist to see how you can get some better shut-eye.