Melatonin supplements for sleep: What you need to know

More and more people who suffer from insufficient sleep are using melatonin supplements. It was in 1958 when melatonin was discovered, a hormone our body makes to help regulate our natural body clock called circadian rhythm. It is estimated that more than 3 million adults and almost a half-million children take melatonin for sleep deprivation. Growth of melatonin supplements has been brisk – In 2020, more than $825 million was spent by U.S. consumers, which was up from $459 million in 2018. Up to 20% of people who have tried a natural sleep remedy within the last 12 months have chosen melatonin supplements, making them the most popular choice over other sleep aids. 

How does melatonin work?

Everyone naturally makes melatonin. Its purpose is to regulate our sleep-wake cycles. The melatonin our body produces is like a light switch; at the end of the day, as daylight fades, the brain’s pineal gland gradually increases levels of melatonin production about one to three hours before bedtime. This is what causes sleepiness, signaling the time for bed. When the morning light appears, this gives a signal to the brain to reduce melatonin production, allowing us to wake up and become more alert. Our brain can only make melatonin in dim light – bright light will stop its release. Think of melatonin as a sleep regulator and not as a sleep initiator. 

How effective are melatonin supplements?

It was in the 1980s that supplements of melatonin were advertised to be a sleep aid for those with insomnia. But studies have only been able to show that melatonin supplements perform mildly at best in inducing sleep. One review of 15 studies of 284 healthy adults found that those who took melatonin before bed fell asleep 3.0 minutes faster on average and slept eight minutes longer. However, everyone is different in how their body responds to melatonin supplements.

What is agreed upon by most sleep experts is that taking melatonin supplements can have a big effect on treating circadian rhythm disorders like delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. This disorder is when a person’s body’s natural melatonin levels fail to rise normally, making it hard to get to sleep and wake up in the morning. A study published in PLOS Medicine followed 116 men with this disorder and found that taking 0.5 milligrams of fast-release melatonin one hour before bedtime at least five nights a week fell asleep 34 minutes earlier on average, slept more soundly, and normalized their sleep patterns in four weeks.

There are other ways taking melatonin supplements may be effective for some people. When taken at the right time, in the right dose, and for a short duration, melatonin can repair a sleep schedule thrown off by jet lag or a long weekend of staying up long past your regular bedtime. Caution is advised, however, to not get behind the wheel of a vehicle to drive. 

For most of us, aging causes our bodies to produce less melatonin as daylight fades. If a person wants to try melatonin supplements, experts recommend 0.5 to 2 milligrams taken an hour before bedtime. If traveling across time zones or if you are a night owl, it is recommended to take a small dose of 0.5 milligrams about five hours before desired bedtime to stimulate the brain’s natural production of melatonin. 

How safe are melatonin supplements?

Melatonin supplements are generally safe and can be helpful for many people. But, people should not take them believing melatonin magically causes sleep within a few minutes. So, what we do know is that melatonin supplements are safe for adults to use in the short term, but because there haven’t been any long-term studies in humans, the long-term safety is unknown.

When a person takes smaller doses of melatonin – 0.5 milligrams or less – the supplements produce levels similar to what the brain makes naturally. However, if a person takes a larger dose, such as 3 milligrams, melatonin levels may rise to almost ten times higher. We don’t know yet how much is too much to be taking. 

Although melatonin has no serious side effects, possible side effects include extreme drowsiness, dizziness, headache, and nausea. The supplements are not recommended for children and pregnant or breastfeeding women. There is little research on melatonin’s safety in young children – it is also advised not to give melatonin or any sleep medication to children under the age of 2. 

It’s also important to know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate melatonin supplements. Because dietary supplements are not regulated as much as prescription drugs, quality can vary wildly from bottle to bottle. For example, one study found that 71% of melatonin supplements did not contain what was listed on the label. Some had more than four times as much melatonin as they claimed and 26% contained the powerful neurotransmitter serotonin.  

Anyone with hypertension, diabetes, or epilepsy should always discuss with the doctor before taking a melatonin supplement – the supplement can interact negatively with medications for these conditions. 


Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy.  Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911. 

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