Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone, is available in a manufactured supplement form for individuals who experience difficulty sleeping. Problems with sleeping can arise as a result of jet lag, working overnight shifts or an unexplained imbalance of the body’s internal clock.
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that is responsible for regulating sleep cycles. The circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that tells you when to sleep and when to wake, is directly affected by the amount of melatonin in the body. When an individual has unexplained difficulty falling asleep, low melatonin levels are often suspected.
There is a direct correlation between melatonin levels and the amount of light received by the body. At night, when the body is surrounded by darkness, melatonin is released by the pineal gland. As melatonin levels rise, the message is sent to the body that it is time to go to sleep, causing the individual to become drowsy. As darkness fades and the body is exposed to increasing light, melatonin levels drop significantly.
When this natural balance is thrown off, the level of melatonin production is dramatically reduced and difficulty sleeping occurs. This is the reason why many individuals who work the night shift often have difficulty falling asleep when their shift ends. This is known as shift work sleep disorder. Even if they are at the point of exhaustion, they may not be able to fall asleep because of the lack of melatonin production at night.
What Can It Be Used For?
Artificially manufactured melatonin in the form of supplements can be used to treat an imbalance in natural melatonin levels. It is available as a pill, liquid drops or in pellets that are placed under the tongue. The pill form is most common, although some individuals prefer the liquid or pellet version because it is the fastest absorbing method.
- Melatonin supplements are used to correct the melatonin imbalance that may occur in certain individuals. It is a common remedy for people suffering from jet lag because the supplement can help establish normal sleep patterns quickly. It is a popular way for individuals who work the night shift to reset the body’s biological clock, resulting in less daytime tiredness and eliminating many of the symptoms associated with shift work sleep disorder.
- Patients who are blind are often prescribed melatonin supplements to help them establish a pattern of night and day.
- Children with developmental disorders such as autism and cerebral palsy, and those suffering from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) often have difficulty calming their bodies down at night. This can interfere with normal sleep patterns and result in a Melatonin imbalance. Melatonin supplements are a popular choice for parents looking to address the problem without over medicating their children.
- There are people who do not fit into any of the categories above and experience unexplained insomnia. Rather than taking prescription sleeping pills that may have a host of negative side effects, many of them turn to melatonin supplements as a safer, more natural alternative.
How Does Melatonin Work?
Melatonin is derived from the amino acid, tryptophan, which is known for causing drowsiness and has a naturally relaxing effect on individuals. Natural melatonin reaches peak levels sometime between 2am and 4 am. When melatonin levels rise during the day, such as when turkey (high in Tryptophan) is consumed, drowsiness may follow depending on the amount consumed. This same process occurs when melatonin supplements are taken to eliminate night time wakefulness.
Melatonin supplements that are taken in pill form generally start working after an hour. For this reason, individuals should not wait until they are going to bed to take them, or they may find themselves lying awake for an hour or more. When melatonin supplements are in the form of liquid drops or pellets, the drowsy effect is almost immediate. They can be taken 10 minutes before bedtime to induce sleep.
Some individuals who suffer from unexplained sleeplessness report that after a few months of taking melatonin supplements, their natural sleep cycle returned to a normal balance, allowing them to discontinue the supplements. Others, such as those who work at night, may have chronic low levels of melatonin. These individuals often add melatonin supplements as a part of their normal daily routine.
Is It Safe?
Melatonin supplements do not require a prescription. They are considered a food supplement product, much like a vitamin, and do not require FDA approval. Individuals who suffer from a depressed immune system, diabetes, liver or kidney disease, stroke or depression should first consult their physician prior to taking melatonin supplements. Research on the safety of melatonin supplements currently shows that they are safe. However, there are no reported studies on the long term effects of melatonin supplementation.
Melatonin supplements are manufactured in one of two ways. There is a naturally occurring form that is derived from the pineal glands of certain animals. A synthetic form that is produced in a laboratory from chemical compounds is also available. Some individuals prefer the non-synthetic version because they feel it is more natural. It is possible that the natural form may have some risks associated with it because there is a slight chance that it an harbor some of the viruses that may have been present in the animals it was derived from. Because synthetic melatonin supplements do not contain any biological contaminants, it may be the safer option.
Melatonin supplements should never be combined with sedative medication. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take Melatonin supplements. Parents should always check with their pediatrician before giving melatonin supplements to any child under the age of 18.
Are There Any Side Effects?
Aside from causing drowsiness, there are other side effects that have been reported by individuals taking melatonin supplements. The most common reported side effect is a headache. Other possible side effects include mood swings, altered sleep patterns, rapid heartbeat, feeling dizzy, daytime drowsiness, irritability and mild anxiety. Some individuals report vivid dreams and occasional nightmares when taking melatonin supplements. These side effects are usually short-lasting and can often be eliminated by lowering the dosage.