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Melatonin: myths vs. facts

Last Modified: May 21, 2017

Family Medicine

Sleep is a beautiful, restorative necessity that 1 in 3 adults simply aren’t getting enough of. For many, it’s a busy schedule. For others, it’s a busy mind. A good number of people turn to melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep aid for help. But is it safe? Jared Netley, PharmD, MPA, Resident, Pharmacy, Parkview Regional Medical Center, gives us the facts.  

The circadian rhythm is our body’s internal clock that maintains and regulates our daily functions. One of the functions of the circadian rhythm is to control our body’s sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin, a naturally produced chemical, aids in regulating our sleep cycle. The brain begins to release melatonin mid-to-late evening and continues production throughout the night. Melatonin signals to our body that it’s time for sleep and causes us to wake up in the morning when the brain stops producing melatonin.

Our body’s release of melatonin can become dysregulated and/or decrease in production. People who work non-traditional shifts, have jet lag, or suffer from insomnia can have abnormal melatonin release patterns. Melatonin is sold as a supplement over-the-counter in many pharmacies. Taking melatonin 30-60 minutes before bedtime, when the body should naturally be producing its own melatonin, resets the body’s sleep-wake cycle to get back on a normal rhythm.

Below, we will address some commonly encountered statements about melatonin and see if they are fact or fiction.

Like many prescription medications, melatonin makes you fall asleep.

Myth. Unlike prescription sleep aids, melatonin does not make your body fall asleep. Melatonin is just one of many chemicals released by our brain to regulate sleep. Taking melatonin signals to your brain that it’s time for sleep and begin its nightly routine to prepare for sleep. Melatonin makes it easier for you to fall asleep, not forces you to fall asleep.


Melatonin is not addicting.  

Fact. Melatonin has shown no addictive properties in previous studies, unlike some prescription sleep aids. However, taking too much melatonin supplements can decrease the body’s natural production and make it rely on getting melatonin from the supplements instead of making its own.


If a person takes melatonin, they should take it for a long time.  

Myth.  For most people, taking melatonin supplements for a short period of time, such as 1-4 weeks, is all that is needed to get the body back on a normal sleep cycle and able to produce its own melatonin. Melatonin does not need to be taken long term because the body can produce it by itself.


The highest dose of melatonin is the most effective dose.

Myth. Melatonin is available in strengths from 1-10mg over-the-counter. Despite there being a 10mg strength, most people do not see any additional benefit from doses above 5mg. Starting at a lower dose, like 3-5mg, is the best to prevent adverse side effects.


Supplements like melatonin do not have side effects and do not affect prescription medications.

Myth. No medication or supplement is without possible side effects. Common side effects of melatonin include headache, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness. Rare, but more serious side effects can include reduced alertness in the morning, anxiety, and irritability. Melatonin can also interact with many prescription medications, so talk to your physician or pharmacist to see if melatonin is right for you before starting.


Melatonin is safe for children.

Fact. Melatonin has been studied in children as young as 3 months. Even though melatonin has been studied in children and is not a prescription medication, it should be used conservatively. Check with your physician or pharmacist to see what the recommended dose is for your child as it is different than adult dosing.


Melatonin can be used for other conditions other than sleep cycle disruptions.

Fact. For children, melatonin has been studied for treatment and management of ADHD and seizures. In adults, many conditions have been studied, including, but not limited to: psychiatric disorders, delirium, dementia, high blood pressure, pain, stomach issues, and headaches. While these conditions have been studied, the data is limited and sometimes conflicting if there is a benefit. Discuss with your physician if adding melatonin to your current regimen is appropriate for your chronic condition.


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