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Note: The information on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature and should not take the place of medical advice. Please consult a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement routine.

For those struggling with their sleep cycles, taking oral melatonin is one of the first ports of call. But in spite of its common usage and over the counter status, there are still a few question marks surrounding it. Taking melatonin, as with anything else, as a supplement comes with potential for side effects. Some of these are well-known and publicized, but other, rarer side effects are more obscure and unknown to the general public. So is the taking of melatonin to aid sleep safe?

What Is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the pineal gland which regulates the body’s biorhythm, or natural sleep cycle. Young people produce a lot of melatonin, and the amount tends to decrease with age. Other factors which can impact melatonin levels are the body’s exposure to natural light, alcohol, caffeine, and blue light (such as computers and phone screens).

The level of melatonin in your system is controlled by your body clock – it rises in the evening, remains at a high level during sleeping hours and then falls again in the morning. Trace amounts of it are found in particular foods like meats, grains, fruits and vegetables, particularly oats, bananas, tart cherries, walnuts, pineapple and barley. But it can also be prescribed in pill form by a doctor, or purchased (often in a “gummy” form) as a natural supplement.

What Is It Used For?

Melatonin can be used to aid in wide spectrum of sleep disorders. It’s primarily used to treat insomnia, but can also be useful in helping those suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or winter depression, and those attempting to regulate their circadian cycle. It may also be useful in controlling sleep patterns for shift workers, helping reduce sleep confusion post-surgery or helping people tackle jet lag.

Melatonin is also being studied as a potential treatment in many other areas, such as a menopausal aid and as an immune system strengthener. It has an impact against free radicals, meaning it could possible have anti-aging benefits, and can be applied to the skin to protect against sunburn (though much more research is needed to confirm any of these effects). 

Melatonin can be prescribed by a doctor, but is also commonly available to purchase over the counter. It’s fairly inexpensive and easy to find, but there are particular question marks concerning its potency and dosage.

Is It Safe?

Melatonin is generally considered safe in short term and sometimes even long term use – many resources suggest it can be taken for up to two years. Children and pregnant women, however, are not advised to take it, as more studies are needed to be done to verify its safety.

Because it’s a naturally occurring hormone in the body, the risks of addiction is generally considered very low, though this can vary from person to person. Similarly, although taking too much negates its positive effect, there’s virtually no evidence that overdosing on melatonin could be fatal or even life-threatening. Melatonin abuse is also far less common than with other prescribed sleeping aids, as there are no immediate feelings of comfort or euphoria.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that melatonin is a powerful hormone. Many people think that because it’s naturally occurring, it’s totally without risk, but this isn’t necessarily the case. In spite of being a hormone, melatonin is classified by the FDA as a dietary supplement, meaning it can be sold in a huge variety of strengths from brand to brand. Some over the counter melatonin supplements contain as much as ten times the recommended dose. Finding the right dose and being careful with it are of crucial importance, both in terms of getting the best effects of melatonin, and in minimizing any side-effects.

What Are Some Common Side Effects?

Like with any synthetic hormone, there are some very common side effects of taking melatonin supplements, though these typically end once it stops being taken. The most reported include sleepiness and drowsiness, headaches and stomach cramps, and short term feelings or irritability or depression. These can be managed through consistent and fairly low dosage.

Nevertheless, if you’re struggling with the drowsiness, sleepiness or dizziness as a side effect, it’s important to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery.

And What Are Some Which Are Less Common?

Melatonin can interfere with other medications, particularly those taken for diabetes and blood pressure, or blood thinning medications such as aspirin. It can increase levels of blood sugar, so those with diabetes must monitor themselves carefully if taking these supplements. Melatonin can also increase immune system function, which can be dangerous for transplant patients, as it increases the body’s likelihood of rejection.

Because it’s a hormone, melatonin could possible interfere with ovulation. 

There are also risks just in terms of an overly high melatonin dosage. By taking a consistent dosage of melatonin, your body may become reliant on it and stop producing melatonin itself. Thus, it can actually have adverse effects of regulating biorhythm and aiding insomnia, particularly after you stop taking it.

Some other, less common, side effects of melatonin supplements are vivid dreams, low blood pressure and a slightly lower body temperature.

Is It Worth The Risks?

Melatonin is a powerful hormone, and works unlike other sleeping aids. It’s a sleep regulator, rather than a sleep initiator. Those who are really struggling with insomnia may feel compelled to take a high dose, thinking it’ll have a stronger effect. However, at the wrong dose, melatonin can actually make the sleeping cycle much worse, inducing drowsiness and preventing the body self-regulating its natural sleep cycle.

Melatonin dosage comes in a wide variety of strengths, from 0.2 mg to 20.0 mg. The most commonly useful dosage falls between 0.3 and 1.0 mg. Typically, if you can find the dosage perfect for you, you can get all the benefits of melatonin whilst still minimizing the side effects. Just because it’s unregulated and easy to purchase doesn’t mean it can be taken without consequence. Exercising caution when taking melatonin is the best way to get maximum benefits with minimum drawbacks.

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Annie Walton Doyle

Annie Walton Doyle is a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Daily Telegraph, Professional Photography Magazine, Bustle, Ravishly and more. When not writing, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature and mysteries.

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