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Sleep Science

Melatonin for Sleep: Does It Work?

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Melatonin supplements promise sound, natural sleep—and are even touted as a “miracle” for people with sleep disorders. Here’s what you need to know about your body’s natural melatonin production and melatonin sleep aids.

What the Experts Do
Lower the Lights to Prep for Sleep

Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M., keeps the lights low in the evening to help his mind and body prepare for sleep. But if he has to work in the evening or answer emails, he uses filters to screen out the blue and green wavelengths of light emitted by his smartphone and computer. “Your brain associates this light with daytime, and it can interfere with melatonin’s sleep-promoting effects. A filter can help.” Many types of blue-light filters are available online and in stores.

Melatonin sleep aids are growing in popularity, with 3 million Americans using them in 2012, according to a nationwide survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re among them or are considering melatonin for sleep, it’s smart to understand exactly how melatonin works.

“Your body produces melatonin naturally. It doesn’t make you sleep, but as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep,” explains Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M.

“Most people’s bodies produce enough melatonin for sleep on their own. However, there are steps you can take to make the most of your natural melatonin production, or you can try a supplement on a short-term basis if you’re experiencing insomnia, want to overcome jet lag, or are a night owl who needs to get to bed earlier and wake up earlier, such as for work or school.”

If you’d like to harness melatonin’s sleep-inducing effects, Buenaver recommends taking these steps.

Work with, not against, melatonin’s sleep-inducing signals.

“Melatonin levels rise about two hours before bedtime,” Buenaver says. “Create optimal conditions for it to do its job by keeping the lights low before bed. Stop using your computer, smartphone or tablet—the blue and green light from these devices can neutralize melatonin’s effects. If you watch television, be sure you’re at least six feet away from the screen. Turn off bright overhead lights too.” Meanwhile you can help program your body to produce melatonin for sleep at the right time of day by getting exposure to daylight during the morning and afternoon. Take a walk outside or sit beside a sunny window.

Consider melatonin sleep help for occasional insomnia.

“Even sound sleepers have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep once in a while,” Buenaver says. “You may want to try melatonin for sleep if you have difficulty for more than a night or two.” 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.

Use melatonin sleep supplements wisely and safely.

“Less is more,” Buenaver says. Take 1 to 3 milligrams two hours before bedtime. To ease jet lag, try taking melatonin two hours before your bedtime at your destination, starting a few days before your trip. “You can also adjust your sleep-wake schedule to be in sync with your new time zone by simply staying awake when you reach your destination—delaying sleep until your usual bedtime in the new time zone. Also, get outside for natural light exposure. That’s what I do,” Buenaver says.

Know when to stop.

“If melatonin for sleep isn’t helping after a week or two, stop using it,” says Buenaver. “And if your sleep problems continue, talk with your health care provider. If melatonin does seem to help, it’s safe for most people to take nightly for one to two months. “After that, stop and see how your sleep is,” he suggests. “Be sure you’re also relaxing before bed, keeping the lights low and sleeping in a cool, dark, comfortable bedroom for optimal results.”

Skip melatonin for sleep if …

Do not use melatonin if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have an autoimmune disorder, a seizure disorder or depression. Talk to your health care provider if you have diabetes or high blood pressure. Melatonin supplements may also raise blood-sugar levels and increase blood pressure levels in people taking some hypertension medications.

 

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