Melatonin is not a sleeping pill. The dark side of the popular health supplement

Joanna Sosnowska 6 minutes read

Easily accessible all over the world and cheap – seems to be the simplest remedy for sleep issues. But is it? Read this before you reach for another melatonin pill.

Natural and synthetic melatonin. What’s the difference?

Melatonin is also called “the darkness hormone.” It’s like a butler that shows up in your brain announcing “It’s time for bed, M’lord.” Scientifically speaking, melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland deep in our brains. When released, it binds to the receptors responsible for our circadian rhythm, and from there, it enters the cerebrospinal fluid and the bloodstream.

You can buy synthetic or natural melatonin in any pharmacy around the world. The first one is developed in a lab. The second is extracted from the pineal glands of animals, most often cows. Natural melatonin can be mixed with synthetic, but in the end, melatonin represents a chemical formula, and no matter the production method, it should always be the same.

When to consider taking melatonin?

Melatonin is typically the first drug of choice for anyone suffering from most sleep issues. Insomnia, jet lag or shift work might prompt you to take it. Since it’s cheap and available over the counter, it’s widely used and considered safe.

And generally, it is, but it won’t help every person with a sleep disorder – just those trying to adjust their circadian rhythm. It will help you if you’re suffering from jet lag and it can also be effective in helping cope with a shift-work schedule. But melatonin will not work in insomnia cases. We explain that later.

Is melatonin a drug?

According to the FDA, melatonin is a dietary supplement and not a regulated drug. Of course, this is why it’s available without a prescription and so popular. But this is where the problem begins: since melatonin is not regulated, you may not find sufficient or accurate information on the bottle about its strength and dosage. A study conducted by MIT in 2001 states that 0.3 milligrams of melatonin is sufficient to restore peaceful sleep in adults.

But in stores and pharmacies, you’ll even find 5 mg doses of the hormone.

Melatonin is a hormone

Melatonin’s positive impact on regulating our biological clock was proven in many clinical trials. There’s no doubting that. But it still remains a hormone, and as such, it’s not wise to use it without at least consulting a doctor.

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Melatonin in your body

Melatonin starts to be secreted around two hours before you go to bed. That’s typically around 9 pm. This doesn’t mean you should go to bed at that time – it just means that your body is getting ready for sleep. Statistically, you achieve the deepest sleep at around 3 am, and from then on the melatonin level starts to decrease. In the morning, when there’s little melatonin in your system, cortisol starts to rise. This cycle is repeated every day of our lives.

Except for when we’re getting older. Then, the pineal gland produces less and less of the “darkness hormone.” That’s why your grandparents have trouble sleeping.

It is in this daily rhythm that you can find the answer to why melatonin sometimes fails to kick in.

When to take melatonin?

As we previously mentioned, the highest concentration of melatonin in our bodies occurs between 9 pm and 2 am. The hormone needs at least 30 minutes to start taking effect, so it would be wise to take a pill before bed to assist your sleeping routine. But, as we read in Consumer Reports: “People taking the drugs fall asleep only 7 minutes faster and sleep 8 minutes longer on average, according to a 2013 analysis in the journal PLoS One.”

If you’re wide awake in the middle of the night when melatonin levels are decreasing, taking another pill may not help. The same applies if you want to fall asleep sooner during the day. That is because melatonin is not a sleeping pill. It’s just an indicator of bedtime. An MIT neuroscientist Dr. Richard Wurtman says (cited by Van Winkle’s) “When it’s nighttime and melatonin levels are high, taking melatonin supplements is like putting a drop of water into an empty bucket; when it’s daytime, it’s like putting a drop of water into a full bucket.”

Remember then that it does matter when you take melatonin – otherwise you can disrupt your biological clock. Melatonin taken in the middle of the day can move your biological clock up, while melatonin taken in the middle of the night can move it forward.

When will melatonin not help?

Bad news for all the insomniacs out there – melatonin is a sleeping assistant, not a cure for sleeplessness. Also, this “darkness hormone” won’t be more effective when you go over the recommended dose. In 2005, MIT conducted a study which found that high doses of melatonin are effective for just a few days. But after that, the impact stops.

Another consequence of overdosing is the grogginess that can be felt in the morning (it occurs in 20% of cases). This, unfortunately, happens quite frequently when the pills you bought contain more than the recommended dose of melatonin for your age.

How much melatonin should you take?

How old are you? Children and teenagers should rather avoid it. Melatonin would have unwanted effects on their hormonal development, puberty, and can affect menstrual cycles.

If you’re over 30, the suggested dosage is 0.3 mg. If you’re 40 – the dosage can be increased.

Age Dosage
40 – 44 0,5 – 1 mg
45 – 54 1 – 2 mg
55 – 64 2 mg
65 – 75 2,5 – 5 mg
Over 75 3,5 – 5 mg


Side effects on sexes

Melatonin has the same basic impact on both sexes – it heralds sleep time. But it may also have some interesting side effects. In women, it can change progesterone, estradiol, luteinizing hormone and thyroid levels. In men, the “darkness hormone” can affect sperm – both decrease the count and slow it down.

Melatonin – to take or not to take

Melatonin is considered to be safe. And in little doses, taken from time to time – it is. It should help in cases of regulating the circadian rhythm necessitated by, for example, jet lag. But it will not help you in sleep disorders such as insomnia.

If you suffer from the latter, you should consult a doctor to understand what treatment will be the most effective. And aside from that, develop a sleep routine. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, you can also consider various non-pharmacological solutions. Different relaxation techniques should be helpful in less severe cases. Or you can look to scientific solutions. Nightly is one of them. The app, available on iOS and Android and tested in clinical conditions, gently but efficiently improves the quality of sleep. It helps limit unwanted wakeups, makes falling asleep easier and allows you to enjoy healthy sleep. All thanks to a unique AI-based algorithm, that recognizes any chance of an unwanted wakeup and reacts to minimize it. At crucial moments of your sleep, Nightly plays soothing audio to make sure you sleep soundly through the night.

Melatonin had a bright reputation for over 20 years. Now it’s time to face the truth – it doesn’t help with every sleep related issue. It just tells your brain, it’s time to go to bed.

Reclaim your night and start your day full of energy. Sleep with Nightly tonight