Melatonin is a hormone that is produced naturally in the brain, in the pineal gland. It is used by the body to help regulate the circadian rhythm, which is the body’s cycle of sleeping and waking. Melatonin levels begin to rise in the evening, when the eyes indicate to the brain that daylight is dimming. Melatonin supplements are often used to help a person adjust to an earlier bedtime, as well as to treat jet lag and insomnia.
Melatonin supplements are available as over-the-counter pills in the United States and Canada, and by prescription only or not at all in most other countries. Because melatonin supplements are not sold as medication in the U.S., the guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not apply to them. Some newer FDA rules, however, aim to ensure a measure of quality control and accurate labeling for dietary supplements including melatonin.
Some studies indicate that melatonin supplements actually contain several times more melatonin than is actually needed for most purposes. Even at these dosages, side effects are rare, but may occur if more than one dose is taken daily. These can include next-day grogginess, nightmares, and headaches. The appropriate dosage of supplemental melatonin can actually vary from one person to another, and also depends on what condition the supplement is being used to treat. As with all healthcare products, it is wise to consult a health professional before using melatonin supplements.
Because melatonin is sometimes used in the treatment of insomnia, some people think that it constitutes a natural sleeping pill. This is not quite accurate, since melatonin on its own will not induce sleep in the way that a sleeping pill does. Rather, it induces changes in the brain that prepare the body for sleep. There are other precautions to take into account when using melatonin supplements, such as avoiding taking them during the day. Doing so can confuse the body’s sleep cycles, exacerbating problems like insomnia and jet lag. This has also been shown to correlate with a higher incidence of depression.
It is generally safest to take melatonin supplements in low doses for short periods of time. Certain people, such as children and women who are pregnant or nursing should seek a doctor’s approval before taking melatonin. It should only be taken in its synthetic form, since melatonin that is naturally derived from animals can carry disease.