Is Melatonin Safe to Use as a Sleep Aid?

At some point in our lives, most of us have spent a night tossing and turning in bed, unable to fall asleep, despite our efforts. Maybe you’ve tried counting sheep or even listening to white noise. Some of you might have even made it to the medicine cabinet, popping melatonin in the hopes of a restful night’s sleep. But is melatonin truly effective? More importantly, is it safe?

“The short answer is yes, melatonin is useful for treating some sleep problems,” said Richard A. Parisi, MD of TPMG Lung and Sleep Specialists at Williamsburg. Melatonin is a natural hormone that is produced during the night that promotes sleep. It won’t put your brain to sleep, but it will tell your brain when it is time to fall asleep. Melatonin is typically used for those with a delayed sleep phase issue (when your sleep schedule shifts to later in the night), which is common in teenagers and young adults, or those with advanced sleep phase issues (when your sleep schedule shifts in the opposite direction) to help get your sleep schedule back on track.

Although melatonin can be an effective tool for readjusting your sleep schedule, if used incorrectly, it can be less effective. If melatonin is going to be effective, it must be used consistently. Taking one isolated dose for a temporary sleep problem will likely render the melatonin far less effective. Instead, melatonin is typically recommended for those with chronic sleep problems.

Another common mistake associated with melatonin use has to do with dosage. People oftentimes take more melatonin than is recommended for a single dose. While it is unlikely to cause you harm to take an extra pill or two, Dr. Parisi assures that a larger dose than recommended will not be more effective. There is no evidence that indicates an increased dosage is more helpful. Research shows that people with sleep problems almost never need more than three to five milligrams of melatonin to get a good result for certain sleep disorders.

“Less is more when it comes to melatonin dosage,” said Dr. Parisi.

Beyond its effectiveness, melatonin is quite safe. There are few reports of long-term problems associated with melatonin use. In the short term, melatonin can cause depression or irritability, and some people experience an increased number of disturbing dreams. Additionally, those who take birth control have melatonin levels that are naturally high, so taking additional melatonin can cause you to feel sleepier.

While safe and effective, there are also other options to maintain healthy sleep behavior. Try keeping a consistent sleep schedule, focusing especially on a consistent wake-up time each morning. The consistency will help reset your internal clock. Other beneficial sleep habits include keeping your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet, avoiding caffeine or alcohol, and restricting your time spent awake in bed.

Sleep problems often have many different causes and sometimes melatonin is not the answer. Many people who have chronic or frequent problems with insomnia actually have an underlying sleep disorder that needs to be addressed. So instead of relying solely on over-the-counter medicine, consider discussing your condition with a doctor. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to see a sleep medicine specialist like Dr. Parisi to look for other disorders.

Richard A. Parisi, MD, is a fellowship trained, board certified physician with over 30 years of experience in Internal Medicine, Pulmonary Diseases, and Sleep Medicine. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), a unique honor that recognizes special competency in sleep medicine and significant contributions to the field. Dr. Parisi has many years of experience in the field of sleep medicine, with a special interest in sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and other sleep-related disorders. He always strives to be a good listener while developing treatment plans in partnership with his patients.

Dr. Parisi sees patients starting at 13 years of age to adults and is accepting new patients.

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