A mounting body of research shows what many of us intuit: Sleep is critical to well-being
. It’s during slumber that most of the processes of the body and brain are recharged and restored. Your skin, your immune system, your cognitive abilities—all are significantly impacted by sleep. And without a proper amount of it, meaning to seven to nine hours per night, you may experience everything from poor concentration to an impaired ability to process memories.
And yet, a number of people struggle to sleep—as in, sleep disorders affect up to 70 million Americans every year, the Cleveland Clinic reports. For this reason, they often to turn to vitamins, supplements and medications.
Chief among these? Melatonin
—one of the most popular supplements in the U.S., and one that’s used by more than 3 million Americans annually.
How does melatonin work?
Here’s the thing: Melatonin is often thought of as only supplement. In fact, it’s a naturally occurring hormone
produced in your pineal gland—a pea-sized gland located above the middle of your brain.
During the day, this hormone remains dormant while other hormones, primarily cortisol, power you through your tasks. At night, melatonin is released and encourages sleep— reinforcing the beauty of the body’s organic machinery.
However, age, stress, working the night shift, and being overweight, as well as other factors, can disrupt or weaken your body’s melatonin levels, rendering sleep impossible for some and oversleeping for others.
, then, naturally support normal levels and may promote a better night’s sleep. As John Hopkins says, “Research shows that a supplement may help people with insomnia fall asleep slightly faster and may have bigger benefits for those with delayed sleep phase syndrome—falling asleep very late and waking up late the next day.”†
The problem is, many are under the assumption that they can simply pop a melatonin supplement and fall asleep, as if it were, perhaps, Ambien or another sleep aid—options that typically stimulate sleep immediately. And yet, sleeping pills are psychoactive drugs and somewhat similar to sedatives: Medications that slow the nervous system.
Melatonin supplements, on the other hand, work differently, in that they offer sleep support
. Meaning, rather than inducing sleep right away, they “tell” your body it’s time for rest—which may take anywhere from one to two hours to several
What’s more, the time at which you take melatonin can have a large impact on its efficacy. If you take melatonin in the middle of the day, for example, you may not see much of an effect at all.
Another myth surrounding melatonin? That it’s free from side effects. While it’s mainly considered safe at moderated doses (1-3 mg) at night, you may experience grogginess the next morning, as well as dizziness, headaches and drowsiness.
Still, it can be an excellent option to naturally nurture a solid night’s rest. A few considerations before trying it:
Ensure your overall health is in check
Sleep issues—from insomnia to tossing and turning throughout the night—could be due to an underlying medical condition. Anxiety, PTSD, neurological problems, medications—all can impede on your capacity to fall and stay asleep. Speak with your healthcare professional if your problems with sleeping persist for more than four weeks, or if they’re getting in the way of being able to handle your daily tasks and activities. Your doctor will also be able to tell you if melatonin might interact with any medications you’re taking.
Consider melatonin-rich foods to supplement with your supplement
Pistachios, fish, milk, and goij berries are all high in melatonin, as well as in vitamins and nutrients. Another promising possibility? Tart cherry juice
. Some studies suggest that the melatonin-rich juice can prompt feelings of relaxation.
Take the correct dose—and at the right time
One to three milligrams is usually the wisest amount of melatonin to consume, and should be taken approximately two hours before you’re planning to hit the sheets. Also beware that melatonin can
be habit forming. When the dose you originally began with ceases working, you may take more with the hope that sleep will be just around the corner. This may lead to a dependence on the supplement—in short, something you want to avoid.
Aim for a healthy lifestyle, period
Sleep is a cornerstone of wellness—but so is a well-rounded, healthful diet, adequate exercise, nourishing social connections, reduced stress, and hydration. Once your overall health is in line, sleeping soundly may come more easily for you—and will support your use of the dietary supplement, when you need it, even more.
Go with a reputable brand of melatonin
It may tempting to grab the first bottle of melatonin you see on the shelf, but keep in that not all forms of melatonin are of equal quality. This is particularly important, as melatonin, being a dietary supplement, does not require FDA approval (in other words, you may not know what ingredients you might be ingesting!) Instead, seek out brands that utilize third-party testing and are free of contaminants. (One to try: Vitacost’s range of melatonin supplements.)
And above all? Know that sunshine helps with reviving your body’s natural melatonin levels—if ever there’s a reason to step outside.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.