What Is Melatonin And Should You Really Take It For Sleep?

03/11/2015 08:23 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015
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By Zahra Barnes for Life by DailyBurn

When it comes to living healthy, you know getting enough sleep matters. You can't kill it at work and at the gym if you aren't hitting the sack hard to let your mind and body recuperate. So if you're a tosser-and-turner, your ears might perk up at the mention of potential relief in the form of the supplement melatonin. But what is melatonin? And is it really a good idea to take something to help knock you out at night?

"Your body [naturally] makes melatonin, which helps create the urge to fall asleep," says Sanjeev Kothare, M.D., director of the pediatric sleep program at NYU Langone Medical Center. "We call it 'the hormone of the dark' because it starts rising as it gets late and the light intensity [of the day] goes down." Melatonin is key in regulating your body's internal clock, also known as your circadian rhythm, says Andrew Westwood, M.D., a board-certified sleep physician and assistant professor at Columbia University.

The brain's pineal gland produces melatonin from the amino acids you get in your diet, says Westwood. (But don't turn to food when you can't sleep -- it takes a while for what you digest to turn into melatonin.) As it gets later and darker, your body cranks out higher levels of melatonin. "Normally, by around 8:00 p.m., your melatonin level starts rising. They keep increasing until about 3:00 a.m., when it peaks and your body temperature happens to be at its lowest. We call that 'biological time zero,'" says Kothare. After that, your levels drop again.

So, if you're having trouble drifting off to dreamland, could melatonin be just the thing you're looking for? "It's important to understand that melatonin can help induce sleep, but it will not maintain sleep," says Kothare. "A lot of people who have difficult falling asleep will take it for that reason, since it's an inexpensive supplement you can get over the counter."

Melatonin supplements can also be a great way to break the cycle of insomnia, deal with jet lag, or adjust to life as a shift worker, says Kothare. What it won't do: Conk you out for the entire night and leave you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning.

The Side Effects Of Melatonin
Since melatonin is a supplement, it doesn't require the FDA's stamp of approval. In other words, buyers beware: What you see is not always what you get. "There's scientific evidence that shows some supplements don't actually contain what they say on the label," says Westwood. To avoid that "yikes" factor, he recommends patients do significant research for reputable brands before taking a supplement. Even if you do get the real deal instead of something masquerading as melatonin, you might end up with headaches, nightmares and lingering sleepiness in the morning as side effects.

Most over-the-counter melatonin supplements also contain higher dosages than many doctors would recommend. "Melatonin supplements generally range from 3 to 10 milligrams," says Westwood. "The body usually works with around half a milligram." Although you can't overdose on melatonin, doctors aren't sure whether relying on it can affect you negatively. Westwood says there's a chance it might. "It can de-sensitize your receptors so they're no longer responsive to lower doses of melatonin," he says. "Then, if you come off [the supplement], you might have difficulty sleeping -- and require more and more melatonin to fall asleep." On the other hand, Kothare says if you respond well to melatonin supplements, you can keep taking them long-term without any major negative side effects.

The Bottom Line
Even if you're convinced melatonin could relieve your sleep woes, head to a doctor's office first. "In many cases, people actually need something else, like avoiding bright lights and blue lights from things like cell phones and computers a few hours before bed," says Westwood.

If your doctor does think you could benefit from melatonin, he or she will likely recommend taking only around a milligram, instead of the higher doses most supplements offer. And, if you've been using melatonin and feel like it's having wonky effects on your body, seek out medical advice. That's what doctors are there for!

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