Unless you’re one of the lucky fall-asleep-anywhere-even-in-coach-seats few, I’m pretty sure you’ve had at least some trouble falling asleep. Maybe you’re restless for hours through the night, maybe you can’t fall asleep without an episode of Friends playing in the background (you know it’s a horrible habit, but you just can’t break it!), or maybe you experienced the horribleness that is jet lag — actively trying to sleep at 2 am, but your body thinks it’s 7 pm (but where was this energy at your evening workout class last week!?). Whatever the case, you’ve likely looked into sleep aids and perhaps regularly take a sleeping pill, or poo-pooed sleeping pills because you were wary of getting your body addicted since they’re not natural.
Enter: Melatonin — the superpower sleep aid that’s even not technically a sleep aid because your body already naturally produces it. It’s available in supplement form (gummies, pills, liquids, and tablets for all your preferences) and tells your body it’s time to fall asleep. Everyone from doctors to models has praised it as their go-to sleep aid and all-natural jet lag quick fix. So is it worth the hype?
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the pineal gland in the brain (yeah– we’re getting science-y) and regulates sleep cycles and tells your body when it’s time to fall asleep and when it’s time to wake up. Melatonin levels should rise in the evening (promoting a restful state for the body) and then drop in the morning (telling your body it’s time to wake up). However, many factors can interfere with melatonin.
Light exposure (or lack thereof) affects production. If there’s any light (i.e. a street lamp shining through the blinds, a digital alarm clock, or *cough, cough* a phone or laptop light within an hour of bedtime) melatonin production can be reduced or halted, since your body thinks it’s daytime. Basically, in today’s day and age of constant electricity, staring at screens, consistent traveling, and bright city life, our ability to produce enough melatonin (and at proper times) can be pretty shot. Other factors like aging can also interfere with melatonin production. Which is why, in the age of technology and great new health inventions (#blessed), we can get our melatonin fix through safe supplements.
Benefits of taking Melatonin as a supplement:
Beyond just regulating our sleep (which is important enough since we all know how crucial getting in those 7-9 hours are), melatonin has other benefits, too. It also acts as a very powerful antioxidant that can fight inflammation and free-radicals in the body. Some studies show that getting enough melatonin can even help prevent certain cancers and diseases like breast and prostate cancer or heart disease. It can also help to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, helping to prevent and treat a range of cardiovascular diseases. It has also been proven to help relieve stress (even chronic stress!) and strengthen the immune system. All that and it puts you out like a light! I know, where do we sign up, right?
But is it right for you?
Taking a melatonin supplement is extremely beneficial when you know your body may not be producing enough or at the right time, like in instances of jet lag, or seasonal sleep issues (many people have trouble falling asleep in the winter because there is less light exposure). Melatonin can also be great for helping you adjust to an earlier bedtime. There are very few downfalls to taking a recommended dosage of melatonin, however, possible (but rare) side effects may include abnormally vivid dreams, stomach aches, drowsiness, irritability, and headaches, so watch out for these symptoms and stop use if any of the side effects last for a long time or are uncomfortable.
A melatonin supplement may not be right for you if you’re using it as a quick fix for long-term issues. While the supplement is perfectly safe, even taking it on a regular basis, our bodies should be able to fall asleep on their own, most of the time. If you chronically experience insomnia or restlessness through the night, it’s important to figure out why. Track your screen exposure in the evening, your diet (looking at you, 2pm coffee), amount of exercise, or check out your serotonin levels, which can all affect melatonin production.
Bottom line: Taking a melatonin supplement is an amazing option for the occasional change in routine that’s not allowing you to sleep well or extra (uncontrollable) light that’s not allowing your body to produce enough melatonin, but if you have trouble sleeping every night, that’s your body trying to tell you something. Our bodies don’t underproduce melatonin, or any other hormones, when everything is functioning properly, so figure out the root cause and fix the long-term issue; don’t patch the issue with a supplement.
So how do you use it?
Some evidence suggests that while 1mg of melatonin is not drastically effective in improving sleep quality, it can be taken regularly as an antioxidant. In general, when taking melatonin, it’s best to start low and work your way up. Start by taking 1.5-2mg about 30 minutes before bedtime. If it doesn’t seem to help your sleep improve after a few tries, consider upping your dosage to 2.5-3mg. 1.5-3mg should be able to positively affect your sleep without disrupting your body’s ability to produce its own melatonin. While you can find melatonin tablets available up to 10mg, anything above 3mg should be consulted with a doctor, to find the best and healthiest dosages for you.
If your problem is falling asleep, go for an immediate-acting formula. If you’re not having trouble falling asleep but wake consistently through the night, take timed-release forms of melatonin. Or, take a combination of lower dosages immediate-acting and timed-release for assistance in both falling asleep and sleeping soundly through the night. Of course, with any dietary supplement or change in health, you should consult your doctor, but especially if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, or any other health condition that may make melatonin harmful.
If a melatonin supplement is not right for you, here are some other options to help you sleep:
- Magnesium is a mineral that also gets a lot of great buzz for stress relief and sleep, among other things. Besides the fact that our body needs it for a wide range of benefits (like regulating digestion, fighting depression, etc.) it’s also called “Nature’s Xanax” (aaaaaand sold.). Try 2tsp of Calm powder in warm water before bedtime for relaxation.
- Essential oils also have extremely relaxing benefits. While lavender gets all the credit (for good reason) you can also try ylang ylang, bergamot, peppermint, or sandalwood essential oils, or a combination of all of them. Put some drops into a diffuser an hour before bed, or try spritzing a pillow spray on your sheets (like here or here), to fall into a relaxation that mimics a spa.
- As always, diet and exercise are typically the main factors of a wide range of health issues, including trouble sleeping. Exercising a little every day (even a walk to the coffee shop is beneficial!) can help produce melatonin at night (but try not to exercise too late at night). Eat healthily, don’t smoke, and limit alcohol consumption to three hours before bedtime (but you’ve heard those health golden rules so much, we don’t need to tell you), and try foods like bananas, cherries, oats, and almonds closest to bed, which can assist with melatonin production.