Melatonin Can Be a Sleep Game-Changer, But You're Probably Not Taking It Right

In this post, Dr. McDonald delves into melatonin, how it works, and clarifies mistakes and myths he's run into with patients to help you get a good night's sleep.

Dr. Chad McDonald

9/23/20232 min read

person lying on bed while covering face with pillow and holding eyeglasses
person lying on bed while covering face with pillow and holding eyeglasses

Understanding Melatonin and Circadian Rhythms

Melatonin is a hormone that plays a crucial role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle. It's produced by the pineal gland, a small gland in the brain, and is released into the bloodstream during periods of darkness. Melatonin levels naturally increase in the evening and decrease in the morning.

The Pineal Gland: The Melatonin Factory

The pineal gland is a small, pea-shaped gland located deep within the brain, often called the "third eye" due to its central location. In addition to melatonin, the pineal gland produces other hormones, such as serotonin and oxytocin. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, and sleep, while oxytocin, known as the "love hormone," is associated with bonding and intimacy.

The Role of Light in Melatonin Production

The process of melatonin production is triggered by changes in light levels. When light enters the eye and hits the retina, it sends signals to the body's master clock, a part of the brain I will simplify to SCN (the real name is way too long). The SCN then communicates with the pineal gland to regulate melatonin production. When it's dark, the SCN sends fewer signals to the pineal gland, causing it to produce more melatonin. This increase in melatonin levels typically occurs in the evening. It peaks during the middle of the night, gradually decreasing in the morning and remaining low during the day.

Practical Implications for Humans

Understanding the relationship between light exposure and melatonin production has practical implications for managing sleep and circadian rhythms. Exposure to bright light, especially from devices like smartphones, in the evening, can suppress melatonin production, making it challenging to fall asleep.

Melatonin supplements can be used to address sleep disorders like delayed sleep phase disorder (DSWPD), jet lag, and adapting to night shifts. The ideal time to take melatonin to align with circadian rhythms is in the early evening, roughly 30-60 minutes before dusk. Taking melatonin too close to bedtime can hinder sleep and may lead to side effects like grogginess and headaches.

Common Misconceptions about Melatonin

  1. Melatonin as a Sleeping Pill: Melatonin is not a sleeping pill; it doesn't induce sleep directly. Instead, it helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

  2. Melatonin's Addictiveness: Melatonin is not addictive. However, it's essential to use it as needed and follow the recommended dosage on the label.

  3. Universal Safety: While melatonin is generally safe for most individuals, it's crucial to consult a healthcare professional before use, especially if you have underlying health conditions or take medications.

    Melatonin is a natural hormone that our bodies produce.

    It is safe to take melatonin in appropriate doses. Melatonin supplements can be purchased over-the-counter (OTC) at most pharmacies. However, in my experience, many of the OTC doses of melatonin are way too high (I've seen 15mg!). For the most part, the research for melatonin in humans found the best doses for adults with insomnia were 0.1-0.3mg (yes, 150 times less than that whopper dose of 15mg), 0,5-5.0mg for older adults with jet lag, and 2.5-5.0mg for children with autism spectrum disorder. These OTC products typically have way too much melatonin, and this is why they don't work well for patients or leave them feeling 'hungover' the next day.

If you are struggling to adjust to the sun going down earlier, melatonin may be helpful. As always, the usual doctor disclaimer: it is essential to talk to your doctor before taking melatonin, especially if you have any health conditions or are taking any medications.