Can melatonin really help you sleep better?


Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe to help to make the season bright. Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow will find it hard to sleep tonight.

If you’re finding it hard to sleep due to the holidays or for whatever reason, counting sheep or sugarplums won’t help. With so many over-the-counter sleep aids out there, maybe you’re wondering if melatonin can help you sleep more soundly.

This light-sensitive hormone, melatonin, produced by your brain’s pineal gland, partially controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle. So how does melatonin affect insomnia? First, know that insomnia affects millions of people. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (yes, there is such a thing) reports that:

  • 30 percent of adults experience brief periods of insomnia.
  • 15-to-20 percent have insomnia for less than three months.
  • 10 percent have chronic insomnia (three times a week for over three months) that affects their ability to function during the daytime.

Scientists are just beginning to understand how well melatonin supplements work for different sleep problems, and when and how much you should take. But we do know that taking melatonin for short periods of time — meaning days or weeks — is better than a placebo for difficulty initially falling asleep.

Melatonin supplements may improve your sleep if you have disrupted circadian rhythms (from jet lag or working the night shift, for example). Melatonin can also be helpful if you are more of a “night owl” and feel more productive and alert in the evening/night.

Melatonin isn’t one of those one-size-fits-all types of things. For melatonin to be helpful, it’s important to tailor your dose, how you take it and the time of day to your specific sleep problem. Taking it at the wrong time of day may actually make your sleep disorder worse.

It’s best to start with very low doses of melatonin. Try and keep the dose close to the amount that your body normally produces, which is less than 0.3 mg per day. Doctors advise using only the lowest amount possible to achieve the desired effect.

Melatonin is generally safe for short-term use. Unlike with many sleep medications, with melatonin you are unlikely to become dependent, have a diminished response after repeated use (habituation), or experience a hangover effect. The most common melatonin side effects include headache, dizziness, nausea and drowsiness.

In addition, melatonin supplements can interact with various medications, including:

  • Anticoagulants and anti-platelet drugs.
  • Anticonvulsants.
  • Contraceptive drugs.
  • Diabetes medications.
  • Medications that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants)

A safe dose of melatonin is the lowest dose that’s effective in helping you fall asleep without causing side effects. In general, a dose between 0.2 and 5 mg is considered a safe starting dose.

A safe dose will depend on your body weight, age, and sensitivity to the supplement.

When it comes to melatonin, it’s best not to go it alone. Melatonin is sold over-the-counter, but you should consult with your primary care doctor or a sleep specialist to find the safest and most effective dose for you. The right dose should produce restful sleep, with no daytime irritability or fatigue.

Tips to improve your quality of sleep

• Keep your sleep environment as dark as possible. This includes limiting lights from the television, computer screen and mobile devices. Light disrupts your body’s natural sleep rhythm.

• Limit caffeine intake, particularly in the eight hours before bedtime.

• Avoid alcohol near bedtime — Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but once it wears off, it makes you more likely to wake up in the night.

• Review your medications and supplements with your doctor or pharmacist and consider changes to their use that could be affecting sleep quality.

• Stop drinking fluids within two hours of bedtime to minimize trips to the bathroom.

• If pain keeps you awake at night, talk to your doctor to see if taking an over-the-counter pain medication before bed may help. While this may not stop you from waking up, you may have an easier time falling back to sleep.

• To maintain a quality sleep cycle, limit daytime napping to just 10 to 20 minutes. If you find that daytime naps make you less sleepy at bedtime, avoid napping altogether.

• If you have trouble falling asleep, try taking 1 to 2 milligrams of melatonin (look for the sustained-release tablets) about two hours before bed.

It’s important to aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night. If you experience poor quality sleep despite taking these steps, or you are tired or sleepy on most days, talk to your doctor.



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