Melatonin Explained: Sleep Support Supplement

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Written by Karolina Zaremba, CNP

Melatonin is one of the top natural sleep supplements that are backed by research. This is a hormone that’s known for regulating your sleep-wake cycle and is commonly supplemented as a sleep aid. Understanding how melatonin works, what the optimal dosage of melatonin is, and learning how to use it best is important for sleep support.

You’ve probably already experienced how missing sleep or poor quality sleep can affect your energy, mood, and mental alertness the next day. Sleep is essential to your physical restorative processes overnight and can help with surprising things like keeping food cravings at bay. So what happens if you can’t get those Zzz’s that your body needs?

Maybe you find you need some help falling or staying asleep. Maybe you need both. Perhaps you’ve exhausted strategies like cutting out caffeine, keeping a regular bedtime, and turning off screens, but still can’t get good shut-eye. What should you do next?

white bed with sheets, white flowers on a wooden bedside table

Melatonin can be a natural solution to try if you struggle with insomnia.

How does melatonin work?

Melatonin is naturally produced by your pineal gland in the brain at night time. This occurs as a response when your brain perceives darkness, and its production is inhibited by light. Melatonin activates two types of membrane receptors. The effects of the hormone depend on the type of melatonin receptor and its location in the body.

Your body’s melatonin production can be interrupted for several reasons, including:

  • Jet lag – traveling to and from different time zones
  • Shift work – irregular work hours, especially working overnight
  • Social jet lag – sleeping at inconsistent times due to lifestyle (such as going to bed at 10 pm during the week and 2 am on weekends)
  • Light exposure – having bright lights, electronic screens, etc. turned on in the evening hours
  • Aging – melatonin production will naturally decrease as we age

The effectiveness of melatonin is also reduced by a decline in melatonin receptors. The number of receptors (1) shrinks as we age, and can be lower with health conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

As a chemical messenger, melatonin regulates several rhythms (2) in the body, including sleep-wake rhythm, and body temperature throughout the day. It’s telling your body when to sleep and when to rise based on the time of day. It has these effects both when it’s made in your body or when taken as a supplement.

When should you take melatonin supplements?

Melatonin supplements are commonly recommended for shift workers and those experiencing jet lag. One meta-analysis (3) found that it’s effective for primary sleep disorders (where insomnia is reported, but not associated with a medical or psychological condition). The study demonstrated that supplementing with melatonin improved total sleep time, quality, and shortened the time it took for participants to fall asleep versus the placebo.

If you’re a parent, you’re probably thinking is melatonin safe for kids? Melatonin has some promise in improving sleep in children (4). Specifically, it can help with reducing the onset of sleep and increasing duration. In children treated with stimulants for ADHD, it was also shown to improve average onset of sleep from 91 minutes to 31 minutes. Some mild adverse effects were noted, such as headaches or dizziness. These symptoms were mild enough that the children continued with the study.

person in bed holding a white alarm clock

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your daily sleep-wake cycle.

What is the optimal dosage of melatonin?

Supplements of the hormone generally range in dose from 0.5 mg to 5 mg but can come as high as 20 mg. They’re found in a regular (immediate) or time-release format. With time-release (also called prolonged-release), the tablets are created to deliver the dose over a longer period of time. This is meant to mimic the way your body releases melatonin throughout the night.

For sleep: Generally, it’s best to take the lowest effective dose. Research suggests a 2 mg dose works for most adults, and the effectiveness improves after taking it for several weeks. It should be taken about 30-60 minutes before bed. Using a low-dose tablet or a liquid spray can allow you to start with a small dose and increase as needed.

For jet lag: Research has shown (5) between 0.5 to 5 mg of melatonin to help those with jet lag. The same review had findings that a short-lived higher dose works better than a prolonged release format for treating jet lag.

Looking for a melatonin supplement? Find a time-release format like Melatonin P.R. in the Fullscript catalog. We also carry Liposomal Melatonin Spray, and Melatonin 3mg Capsules, as well as several others.

How much melatonin is too much?

Many questions surrounding supplementing with melatonin refer to its safety. It’s a hormone, after all.

A review study (6) of the safety of melatonin in humans found that short-term use of the supplement is safe and has minimal adverse effects, even at high doses. Some of the reported symptoms are dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness. Overall, it has fewer side effects than pharmaceutical sleeping pills, making it a good alternative.

We do suggest speaking with your healthcare provider to find out if melatonin is the right fit in your treatment plan, as it’s contraindicated with some health conditions and medications. Your practitioner will be able to advise you best on the recommended dose for your individual needs.

Have you tried melatonin for sleep? Check out our Best Sleep Tips if you’re looking for some more ways to get a good night’s rest. Sweet dreams!