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Melatonin is one of the more popular and available (over-the-counter in the US and Canada) drugs for people to take as a sleep aid. In addition to it’s use for insomnia, it is reported to affect maladies as diverse as delirium, fertility, migraine headaches, and cancer among several others – check out Wikepedia for a full list.
Years ago, back in the 1990′s, It was hailed as a wonder-drug that could cure almost everything. The hype got so out of hand that the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000 wrote an editorial that said, in part:
”The hype and the claims of the so-called miraculous powers of melatonin several years ago did a great disservice to a scientific field of real importance to human health.”
“Our 24-hour society, with its chaotic time cues and lack of natural light, may yet reap substantial benefits.”
Before we get to it’s actual use and dosage as a sleep aid, I think it’s important to know exactly what it is – before we go ingesting it.
What Is Melatonin?
Melatonin is chemically known as N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, and it occurs naturally in most plant, animals (including us) and microbes. In humans, it’s a product of the pineal gland in the brain, where it is manufactured from the chemical tryptophan (the same stuff you find in your turkey dinner).
In mammals, melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland when it’s triggered by darkness, and that secretion is stopped by light. This is why it’s known as the darkness hormone, and why it’s essential for our circadian (day/night) rhythms. As far as we know, there isn’t any food that can elevate the actual melatonin levels in our (human) blood.
Is Melatonin Effective For Sleep?
There are a few sleep related areas where melatonin is part of a standard therapy, normally combined with strong lighting in the morning. All of these are considered a circadian rhythm disorder:
- The first disorder is called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, or DSPS. It’s also been known as “social jet lag”, because the symptoms are almost exactly like permanently being 4-6 hour jetlagged. The problem is most common in children and teenagers (I would say that almost all teenagers are afflicted to some degree – they aren’t tired when it’s bedtime, and too tired in the morning). This is where your internal bio-clock is stuck an hour or two (or in severe cases, three or four) too late – you aren’t tired enough to sleep until very late in the evening, and then you have a normal sleep until you are woken up too early for you (which is probably a normal time for most people). If allowed to sleep until rested completely, you would wake up a few hours later than most everyone else. The way this problem is resolved is with melatonin timed in the evening a few hours before normal bedtime combined with light therapy in the morning. In most cases, this will slowly synchronize the body clock with the actual one. The melatonin in this case is not used as a hypnotic sleep inducer, but rather as an internal clock changer (chronobiotic).
- The second is one called Non-24-Hour-Sleep-Wake-Syndrome. This one sounds particularly nasty – kind of a super version of DSPS. It’s when your body clock (circadian rhythm) is offset an hour or two every night, so you feel sleepy an hour later than you did last night, and wake an hour later – and this goes on and on. So you finish a complete “cycle around the clock” every couple of weeks. And then it starts again. It’s as though your body takes no cues at all from the time of day that it is – you could be asleep at 5pm and wide awake at 3am. The therapy for this, though, is the same as for DSPS.
- Melatonin is also used for jet lag, and is taken to raise blood melatonin levels before your body would naturally produce them – because you’ve just traveled quickly over a few time zones and it would normally take you one day per zone to naturally adjust to the new light-dark cues. Melatonin taken before bed can “jump start” those cues and make adjusting to the new time easier. Note that the dosage becomes important here, as too much can make you drowsy during the day at your destination. Melatonin’s use for combating jet-lag is controversial. For every study that says it’s effective, there’s another one that says it isn’t. I would say that the only way to tell if it will work for you is to give it a try.
- The final one would be supplementation for night-shift workers. It can be used as a supplement before going to bed because the day-night cues aren’t there, so the blood melatonin levels aren’t either. But mostly it’s been touted for another reason – night-shift workers tend to work with artificial lighting, and have very low melatonin levels around the clock (because they’re light-dark cues aren’t there). Melatonin is a powerful anti-oxident, and because of the normally low blood levels of it, cancer tumors occur more frequently in night-shift workers. So the supplementation might not only help you sleep, it may provide a cancer-fighting benefit as well. Again, this one is controversial, but intuitively it sounds reasonable. As with jet-lag, I think it’s prudent to give it a try.
Melatonin Supplementation For Insomnia
When researchers examined the actual blood plasma levels of melatonin in humans, they discovered levels that are quite low compared to the supplements that we take.
It normally would take supplementation of 0.3mg to 0.5mg to effect our blood levels at night in a physiologically significant way. Unfortunately, the supplements we buy often contain ten times as much as we need – 3mg to 5mg (and often more). It’s been shown that too much melatonin can actually be worse for your condition. It’s been demonstrated to have no effect whatever at very high (60mg) levels.
If you are supplementing with melatonin for insomnia, make sure of the dose you are taking. If possible, cut it down to as close to 0.3mg to 0.5mg as you can (I have 5mg pills, so the most I can realistically cut it down to is 2.5mg, which is still too much!).
Melatonin is available in North America as a pill, a capsule, in liquid form, a transdermal patch or can be taken sublingually.
One more thing, make sure that your melatonin is synthetic not natural. Natural melatonin comes from the brains of other mammals, and could contain a nasty virus that you don’t want.