What Is Melatonin and Why Does It Help You Fall Asleep?

woman sleeping

Daylight savings time, noise, caffeine, and travel may be the culprits in keeping you awake (or in some cases, online shopping is to blame). Whatever the case, you’ve likely considered taking a supplemental sleep aid like melatonin in the form of a capsule or liquid melatonin in tea to fall asleep, right? But what is melatonin, exactly? And, how does it work?

“It’s a natural hormone produced by the brain,” shares Courtney Baron, Thumbtack health and wellness coach, “which lets the body know when it’s time to sleep and wake up. It’s also available as a natural sleep supplement in tablet or capsule form for those who have trouble falling asleep.” Want to understand more about melatonin? Keep reading.

What Is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain, which helps regulate our sleep and wake patterns. It also acts as a powerful antioxidant that helps fight free radicals and inflammation in the body.

Ahead, Steven R. Gundry, MD, and our go-to Thumbtack health and wellness coaches break down melatonin—how and when it should be used and the number one thing to be cautious of.

Meet the Expert

What is Melatonin

“Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain, which helps regulate our sleep and wake patterns. It also acts as a powerful antioxidant that helps fight free radicals and inflammation in the body. Melatonin should rise in the evening and then drop in the morning. Light exposure (or lack thereof) can impact the production of melatonin, as can age,” shares Kaitlyn Noble, Thumbtack health and wellness coach.

How Should It Be Used

“Supplemental melatonin has a long history as a sleep aid, but while it is effective in inducing sleep, its effect usually wears off in a few hours, making the user wake up in the middle of the night. For that reason, I recommend using both immediate-acting and timed-release forms of melatonin together,” says Steven R. Gundry, MD, one of the world’s top heart surgeons and a pioneer in nutrition.

“I use this combo when traveling across multiple time zones. Usually 3 mg of each form is an effective and safe dose. There is some evidence that low-dose melatonin of 1 mg daily is an antioxidant, but in this case, more is not better. Although melatonin is available in doses of 10 mg, unless you are trying to wean off prescription sleep aids like Ambien, avoid these doses for long-term use, as they will suppress your bodies own ability to make melatonin.”

How Does It Work?

“It’s effective when our own body is not producing melatonin appropriately,” explains Noble. “Melatonin can be used during travel when our internal clock hasn’t quite caught up to changes in time. Melatonin taken before your desired bedtime can help mimic the natural change that should be happening in your body. Many people find challenges sleeping in winter months because there is less light exposure and some find relief with melatonin supplements.”

The Benefits of Taking Melatonin

"Interestingly, melatonin is far more than the “sleep hormone.” It is the most important antioxidant in our mitochondria, those energy-producing organelles that make our ATP. And there are excellent sources of melatonin in some of our favorite foods like mushrooms and pistachios. I provide a complete list in the book," says Gundry.

Aside from being an antioxidant, melatonin can help you fall asleep. Research shows that melatonin helps regulate your internal clock based on your natural circadian rhythms. It can also offer protective factors for your brain and gastrointestinal tract and help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Melatonin Dos

“Check with your doctor before taking melatonin if you have high blood pressure, are pregnant, or have any other medical conditions that may be harmful to your health by taking this supplement,” cautions Baron. Also, talk to your doctor about the appropriate dosage for your body, she adds.

“Start with the lowest amount recommended and work your way up from there,” shares Noble. “Watch for side effects like vivid dreams, headaches, drowsiness, stomach cramps, and irritability and discontinue use if they are uncomfortable.”

Melatonin Don'ts

“Don’t rely on melatonin solely to fix your issues in the long term,” says Noble. “While melatonin is perfectly safe and can provide relief, it’s important to investigate why your body isn’t falling asleep naturally if it’s chronic. Exposure to technology in the evening, not getting enough light in the morning, poor dietary choices, lack of movement, or serotonin issues can all disrupt melatonin production. Our bodies don’t under-produce hormones when everything is functioning perfectly, so play detective!”

Commonly Asked Questions

Can Melatonin Help With Insomnia

Melatonin might work for you if insomnia is an issue when travelling. "I frequently rely on timed released melatonin when crossing multiple time zones to reset my circadian rhythms, which I discuss in my new book, “The Energy Paradox, so I know it works! I also recommend it to my patients. The usual dose is 5 mg but doubling or even tripling the dose is sometimes needed for weaning off sleep medications," says Gundry.

According to guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American College of Physicians, more evidence on melatonin effectiveness for chronic insomnia is needed to recommend its use. The American College of Physicians guidelines says that cognitive-behavioral therapy is best for insomnia.

Are There Any Side Effects of Taking Melatonin

"There are very few side effects of melatonin. In fact, high dose melatonin is not being used successfully in dementia and Parkinson’s patients. I have some patients taking 10-20mg twice a day for the mitochondrial preservation effect, and they are not sleepy!" explains Gundry.

According to Gundry, even our doggo friends can take it: "My13-year-old 85 lb Labradoodle takes 12mg twice a day as a natural treatment for Cushing's disease in dogs, and she’s a romping’ stomping’ playful oldster around our two puppies," he says.

Talk to your vet before giving your pet any medication or supplements, though, just to be safe. If you are an elderly individual, melatonin can last longer in your system and cause daytime drowsiness, so be sure to check with your doctor before using it.

The NIH lists the following possible side effects of melatonin to be cautious of:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness

Is Melatonin Safe to Take

"There was a fear that melatonin supplementation might affect our own production, but we eat a lot of melatonin if we eat or drink foods like olive oil, coffee, red wine, even dark chocolate so that that argument can be put to rest," explains Gundry.

The National Institutes of Health says that the use of melatonin supplements short-term seems safe for most people. Still, the long-term safety of using melatonin supplements needs more research.

If you take any medications, it's crucial to check with your doctor before taking melatonin, especially if you have epilepsy or are on blood-thinners. The same goes for if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or if you might have an allergy.

Can Children Take Melatonin?

Gundry recommends sticking to food sources of melatonin—except for red wine, of course—for children. The NIH says that melatonin appears safe for children to take but that there is a lack of research on the long-term effects of taking it. Melatonin is a hormone, and so might interfere with regular hormonal development in children. You should talk to your doctor about giving your child melatonin supplements.

Article Sources
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  1. Tordjman S, Chokron S, Delorme R, et al. Melatonin: Pharmacology, Functions and Therapeutic BenefitsCurr Neuropharmacol. 2017;15(3):434-443. doi:10.2174/1570159X14666161228122115

  2. National Institutes of Health. Melatonin: What You Need To Know. January 2021.

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