In recent years, and especially in the time of COVID, melatonin has been growing in popularity. In a world where increased stress makes it hard to achieve a restful night’s sleep, melatonin is a helpful natural supplement that can lull your body after a frantic day--and it’s non-habit-forming when compared to fully chemical sleep aids.
Now, new research shows that melatonin can also have a positive impact on your immune system too. Learn more about what these supplements do, how to take them, and what to expect here.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain. It is derived from the amino acid tryptophan and the neurotransmitter, serotonin.
It’s primarily responsible for regulating your body’s circadian rhythm to manage your natural sleep cycle. Therefore, it’s often used as a sleep aid to combat issues like insomnia. It’s widely available in the US as an over-the-counter medication/vitamin supplement but requires a prescription in other parts of the world, such as Europe and Australia.
In addition to its function regulating the sleep cycle, melatonin is also involved in managing immune function, blood pressure and cortisol levels. (Cortisol is a major stress hormone the adrenal glands release to trigger the “fight or flight” system.)
Melatonin is also produced in plants and defends plant cells as an antioxidant. This means that it is present in a number of foods, including walnuts, bananas, cherries, tomatoes, dairy products (through the animals eating plants that contain melatonin), and even beer, among many, many others.
The Benefits of Melatonin
Melatonin supplements have several benefits, the most obvious and well-known being its use as a sleep aid. For example, melatonin can be used to help regulate high levels of cortisol, which if overly produced in the human body over time can lead to an array of health issues such as weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, mood irregularities, and low energy levels.
Additionally, the Mayo Clinic touts melatonin’s effective use against a host of sleep disorders:
- Circadian rhythm sleep disorders in the blind. Melatonin can help improve these disorders in adults and children.
- Delayed sleep phase (delayed sleep-wake phase sleep disorder). In this disorder, your sleep pattern is delayed two hours or more from a conventional sleep pattern, causing you to go to sleep later and wake up later. Research shows that melatonin reduces the length of time needed to fall asleep and advances the start of sleep in adults and children with this condition. Talk to your child's doctor before giving melatonin to a child.
- Insomnia. Research suggests that melatonin might slightly reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, but its effects on sleep quality and total sleep time aren't clear. Melatonin might be more beneficial for older adults who could be melatonin deficient.
- Jet lag. Evidence shows that melatonin can improve jet lag symptoms, such as alertness and daytime sleepiness.
- Sleep disorders in children. Small studies have suggested melatonin might help treat sleep disturbances in children with a number of disabilities. However, good bedtime habits are usually recommended as an initial treatment. Talk to your child's doctor before giving melatonin to a child.
Research also suggests that melatonin might reduce evening confusion and restlessness in people with Alzheimer's disease, but it doesn't seem to improve cognition. As someone who has grown up with a family tendency towards Alzheimers, this solution for a more calm and collected sleep for patients is something I wish I had known about years ago.
Melatonin may also increase the presence of Human Growth Hormone, a hormone partially responsible for muscle mass and strength. A preliminary study in eight men found that both low (0.5 mg) and high (5 mg) doses of melatonin were effective at increasing HGH levels, while another study in 32 men showed similar results.
Even more interesting is the potential for melatonin to help with ocular health. Melatonin is high in antioxidants that can help prevent cell damage and keep your eyes healthy. In fact, research suggests that melatonin could be beneficial in treating conditions like glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.
In a study in 100 people with AMD, supplementing with 3 mg of melatonin for 6–24 months helped protect the retina, delay age-related damage and preserve visual clarity.
Additionally, a rat study found that melatonin decreased the severity and incidence of retinopathy — an eye disease that affects the retina and can result in vision loss
However, research is limited and additional human studies are needed to determine the effects of long-term melatonin supplements on eye health.
Recommendations and Risks
Melatonin can be taken in doses of 0.5–10 mg per day. However, because not all melatonin supplements are the same, it’s best to stick to the recommended dosage on the label to avoid adverse side effects. You may also want to start with a lower dose and increase as needed to find what works for you.
If you’re using melatonin to improve sleep quality, try taking it 30 minutes before bedtime for maximum effectiveness.
Meanwhile, if you’re using it to correct your circadian rhythm and establish a more regular sleep schedule, you should take it about 2–3 hours before you go to bed.
As with all medications and supplements, there is a risk for negative interactions with other medications and substances. The main concerns for this with melatonin are:
- Anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs, herbs and supplements. These types of drugs, herbs and supplements reduce blood clotting. Combining use of melatonin with them might increase the risk of bleeding.
- Anticonvulsants. Melatonin might inhibit the effects of anticonvulsants and increase the frequency of seizures particularly in children with neurological disabilities.
- Blood pressure drugs. Melatonin might worsen blood pressure in people taking blood pressure medications.
- Central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Melatonin use with these medications might cause an additive sedative effect.
- Diabetes medications. Melatonin might affect sugar levels. If you take diabetes medications, talk to your doctor before using melatonin.
- Contraceptive drugs. Use of contraceptive drugs with melatonin might cause an additive sedative effect and increase possible side effects of melatonin such as dizziness or nausea.
- Cytochrome P450 1A2 (CYP1A2) and cytochrome P450 2C19 (CPY2C19) substrates. Use melatonin cautiously if you take drugs such as diazepam (Valium, Valtoco, others) and others that are affected by these enzymes.
- Fluvoxamine (Luvox). This medication used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder can increase melatonin levels, causing unwanted excessive drowsiness.
- Immunosuppressants. Melatonin can stimulate immune function and interfere with immunosuppressive therapy.
- Seizure threshold lowering drugs. Taking melatonin with these drugs might increase the risk of seizures.
As always, consult a healthcare professional before you begin taking this or any other supplement.
Do you take melatonin supplements? Let us know below if you do and how it works for you!
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