You Asked: Does melatonin really work?

December 1, 2015

Western society has long abandoned the days of rising and setting with the sun. Our daily habits translate into restless nights because our body clocks are completely out of sync—enter melatonin. Melatonin therapy may ease your sleep struggles and also body-hack your circadian rhythms to evade jet lag.

“Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain,” said David J. Earnest, Ph.D., a professor in the department of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, who studies circadian rhythms—24-hour cycles that tell our bodies when to eat, sleep and perform certain processes. “At night, melatonin’s circulation in our bloodstream is high; this it is what signals nighttime and sleep to our body.”

“There are two mechanisms that regulate our sleep patterns,” he added. “The homeostatic response is based on sleep need. It begs the question, ‘how full is the tank?’ If our tank isn’t full, then our body tells us to sleep. Circadian rhythms are the second mechanism. This response is commonly known as your body’s internal clock and decides what time of day or night we need to sleep.”

Earnest noted melatonin therapy aligns with our circadian rhythms and works in two different ways. “At low doses, melatonin is considered a light hypnotic,” he said. “It doesn’t keep you asleep, but it will induce sleep. When taking a higher dosage, melatonin will actually reset your internal body clock—a useful tactic to avoid jet lag.”

Insomnia is a multi-faceted condition and unfortunately it’s often a self-induced problem. “Melatonin will only work if you’re promoting a healthy sleep environment,” he said. “Don’t drink caffeine in the evening or exercise late at night. By staring at your computer or watching TV right before bed you’re engaging in sleep sabotage. It’s important to establish a bedtime routine and axe your bad habits. Remember, melatonin won’t fix a problem you’re making worse.”

Earnest suggests taking melatonin 15 minutes before bedtime after your body has had a chance to settle down. “If you aren’t asleep after 30 to 40 minutes, chances are melatonin may not work. You may need to reassess your habits,” Earnest said.

According to Earnest—while melatonin is mainly known as a sleep inducer—it has another useful talent: combating jet lag. “Since melatonin times when sleep should occur, people who travel across multiple time zones can use melatonin to body-hack the unwelcome effects of jet lag,” Earnest said.

For example, let’s say you’re planning a trip from Texas to London and want to adjust to Europe’s time zone beforehand. You’ll need to simulate what your melatonin levels look like during London’s night prior to your departure.

Earnest suggests taking melatonin about five days before you leave at the local time that coincides with your destination’s nighttime. “This will make you sleepy during the day, but it will train your body clock to adjust to the new time zone and hopefully keep jet lag at bay,” he said.

It’s important to note that the melatonin dosage for jet lag will be much higher than the dosage for sleep troubles. “It really depends on the brand, but a light hypnotic dose of melatonin to combat insomnia is around .3 to .5 milligrams,” Earnest said. “The dose for jet lag will be closer to .5 or .8 milligrams.”

Before you begin taking any sort of supplement, even a natural one, it’s always smart to check with your health care provider. “Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone, but it can still cause adverse reactions if combined with certain medications. You should always consult with your physician about any supplements or medications to ensure this won’t happen,” Earnest said.

— Lauren Thompson

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