Not uncommonly I get asked about taking melatonin supplements, and I find that quite a few of my clients are taking melatonin currently or have in the past. And it’s not hard to see why it’s so widespread. You can get it without a prescription, it’s marketed as natural and safe, and it’s available in flavored teas, gummies and smoothies. There’s even liquid melatonin that comes with an eyedropper for convenient use with infants(!!). Walk down the “sleep” aisle at your local drugstore and you’ll see all of these and more.
Misunderstood and mis-taken
The only problem: melatonin is not really a sleep aid. It doesn’t make you sleepy. The majority of people taking melatonin are doing it all wrong. They tend to take it at the wrong time (right before bed), their dosing is too large (the smallest dose usually available, 1 mg, is still 4-5 times what the body produces), and they expect melatonin to induce sleepiness (it doesn’t). On the other hand, I have heard some physicians refer to it as a pretty effective placebo, and they’ll go along with patients who are convinced they need it to sleep. I guess I can’t argue with that.
Melatonin is not a sleeping pill, but rather, a “darkness signaling” hormone that operates as part of the body’s circadian rhythms. When the ambient light levels decrease in the evening – signaling that the sun is setting – special photoreceptors in the eye relay that information to the brain’s circadian control center (called the suprachiasmatic nucleus) which broadcasts that message to the whole brain by causing a tiny gland (the pineal gland) to release the hormone melatonin. As a result, various circadian processes know that it’s the right part of the 24 hour cycle to do things like: wind down, lower body temperature, reduce the alerting signals, etc. The actual feeling of sleepiness is caused by the homeostatic sleep drive that has built up during the day.