Melatonin is often the first sleep aid many people think of, and its effectiveness in helping improve rest quality and quantity makes it a popular choice. However, like all aspects of health, everyone's needs are unique – what works for one person may not work as well (or at all) for another.
In this article, we break down what you to know about taking melatonin safely:
- who might benefit from it most;
- how best to take it;
- the correct dose according to science-backed research;
- the potential side effects of taking melatonin;
- the impact of blue light on melatonin production;
- and alternatives to melatonin.
What exactly is melatonin?
Melatonin is a powerful naturally-occurring hormone responsible for regulating our body's internal clock and sleep-wake cycles (i.e., circadian rhythm). Produced by the pineal gland in the brain, melatonin concentrations rise with diminishing light levels as night falls to signal it’s time to rest. Which also means that those levels fall when morning sun breaks on the horizon. Of course, many people also opt for exogenous supplements of this special hormone, allowing them an extra boost in their pursuit of catching some serious zzz’s.
Who might benefit most from melatonin?
Melatonin is typically most effective for those experiencing the following problems:
- Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm Disorder: a circadian rhythm disorder characterized by multiple bouts of sleep (i.e., excessive naps) within a 24-hour period. Patients with this disorder tend to present with symptoms of insomnia, including difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, and excessive sleepiness during the daytime.
- Shift Work Disorder: Night shift workers face the challenge of inadequate sleep due to imbalanced melatonin production. Studies have shown that this can be a massive detriment, resulting in up to four fewer hours than recommended for optimal health and wellbeing.
- Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPS): Later bedtimes can pose a challenge for morning risers – particularly teens and young adults who often find themselves in the night owl camp. These individuals need to tackle the task of waking up early each day with dedication and enthusiasm.
- Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder: Sufferers of this sleep disorder find themselves unable to sleep at times as early as 8-9pm. Subsequently they are woken up a few hours later in the small hours of the morning. The result is increased feelings of fatigue and tiredness throughout the day, making it hard for them to contend with regular bedtimes.
- Those experiencing (or wanting to prevent) jet lag: Jet lag, recognized by its technical name of "Rapid Time Zone Change Syndrome," is a widespread travel discomfort that significantly alters one's internal clock, particularly when moving east. Its effects are highly disruptive to your normal sleeping pattern and can be difficult to overcome.
How to take melatonin
Sleep doctors typically recommend taking melatonin 30 to 40 minutes prior to bedtime. An over-the-counter dietary supplement can be taken in several forms including:
How long do the effects of melatonin tend to last?
Standard melatonin typically aids in the initiation of sleep, lasting for about one hour.
How long does it take for melatonin to start working?
While every human body is different, melatonin levels in the bloodstream typically begin to rise around 30 minutes after ingestion.
What is the recommended dosage of melatonin?
Up to 5mg is generally regarded as safe for healthy adults.
Does melatonin really work?
Melatonin has been backed by research demonstrating its ability to improve sleep quality in primary sleep disorder patients. In fact, a meta-analysis found that when subjects took melatonin, their time spent falling asleep was reduced by 7 minutes and overall sleeping time increased 8.25 minutes.
The deleterious effects of blue light on melatonin
Bright light has a startling effect on our body, as it suppresses the secretion of melatonin, thereby interfering with our sleep-wake cycles. Research indicates that even dim light at night can interfere with a person's circadian rhythm and cause health issues such as depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease if experienced long and often enough. So while those glowing table lamps may be comforting at first glance, you may just be disrupting your sleep without knowing it.
An increasing body of work is indicating that blue light in particular is one of the most significant disrupters of the body’s natural melatonin production. In fact, researchers from Harvard found that exposure to blue light at night is a more powerful suppressor of melatonin than any other kind of light. In an experiment comparing exposure to 6.5 hours of both blue and green lights, the results revealed that the former was able to halt production for double the time and shift circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs 1.5 hours). A separate study at University of Toronto arrived at similar conclusions.
Want to know what supplements to take to mitigate the effects of blue light? Check out Stoned Ape's primer on lutein.
Should I be concerned about anything when taking melatonin?
- Potential side effects: Melatonin is generally a safe option as a sleep aid, although in rare cases users have reported short-term side effects such as daytime drowsiness and headaches. To date, however, there is no evidence showing that taking melatonin poses a risk for serious adverse events. Nevertheless, while the risk for serious adverse events is low based on current evidence, it's advisable that those taking melatonin avoid driving or operating heavy machinery within four to five hours after consumption.
- Who should think twice before taking melatonin: Those taking blood pressure medications or antidepressants should consult a doctor prior to taking melatonin. Same for those who experience epilepsy. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also consult a healthcare provider prior to taking a melatonin supplement. And while studies have shown that it is safe for children to take melatonin, there is no clear evidence on the long-term effects of children.
- Taking melatonin every night: There are no long-term studies that confirm whether daily use of melatonin is safe for adults.
What are safe natural alternatives to melatonin?
There are a range of natural sleep aids that have been proven to improve the quality and duration of sleep, all of which are in fact included in Stoned Ape’s P.M. nootropic and sleep aid Dream. Those include:
- Lemon balm
- Valerian root
Want to learn more about how to level up your sleep practice? Check out Stoned Ape's comprehensive sleep guide.