Melatonin: Everything You Should Know

If you've been struggling with getting to sleep or staying asleep, you may have heard about melatonin and wondered about its effects and how safe it is. Melatonin is a well-known hormone and sleep aid, but there's a lot to uncover on this topic.

In this guide we'll talk about what melatonin is, how it works, the recommended dosages, side effects, and other ways to fall asleep that don't involve melatonin. For some people and in certain circumstances, melatonin could prove helpful, but it's important to find out if it's right for you.

What Is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland1, a small, pea-sized gland in the brain. The pineal gland's primary role is to receive information about the state of light or darkness in your environment and then produce and secrete melatonin accordingly.

When your brain senses it is dark, it secretes melatonin. This generally happens about two hours before going to sleep. Conversely, melatonin production2 is impeded by bright lights, including sunlight, cell phones, televisions, computers, and indoor lights.This hormone is vital to your body's natural circadian rhythms (your 24-hour internal clock) and sleep.

A lesser-known function of melatonin is its role in puberty. According to a 2019 study3, melatonin is produced in larger quantities in children before puberty. On average, sometime between the age of 8 and 13 in females and 9 and 14 in males, the body's natural levels of melatonin decline sharply, which is believed to play a vital role in triggering the onset of puberty. You may be wondering how melatonin affects children around this age, and we will talk more about that in an upcoming section.

Melatonin supplements can be made from animals or microorganisms, but in general, they are made synthetically. As mentioned, everybody naturally produces the hormone melatonin, but for some people, adding supplementary melatonin can be useful.

Supplements & Dosage

If you're interested in trying out melatonin supplements, you'll have to decide which type you want to take. Melatonin supplements come in several different forms4: capsules, tablets, liquid, gummies, and even patches.

The benefits of taking melatonin in pill form are they have a longer shelf life, they are tasteless, and tablets are relatively easy to divide (in case you want to split the dose in half.) The only real drawback to melatonin in pill form is if you have difficulty swallowing pills.

Melatonin gummies are another option for taking melatonin orally if you don't like or have difficulty taking pills. In fact, gummies are often sold as melatonin supplements for children since they taste good and are easier to swallow. Just be sure you're not treating them like candy and exceeding the recommended dose.

Conversely, liquid melatonin doesn't always taste great, but it's a good option for those looking for melatonin that's quickly absorbed and easy to swallow. This form is usually a bit more expensive, though, so keep that in mind.

These three forms are the most widely used, and there really isn't one that is recommended more than others by doctors. Capsules and tablets have a longer shelf life, but liquids and gummies may be easier for some people to take and act faster.

For Adults

Melatonin is not a "more is better" sort of supplement. In fact, people who take too much melatonin report an inverse effect: not being able to sleep as well, having headaches and nightmares, and waking up groggy the next day.

Doctors recommend .0.3 mg to 5 milligrams (mg) for adults, noting that lower doses typically work just as well as higher doses. This might sound like a low dose, considering many melatonin supplements are sold in 5 mg, 6 mg, or even 10 mg. To put this into perspective, though, consider that your body naturally produces only 10-80 micrograms6 of melatonin per night. That's a little less than .10 mg. So a dose of .5 mg is already about five times more than your body naturally produces, and a dose of 10 mg is up to 100 times more than your body would naturally produce.

Our bodies naturally produce less melatonin as we get older, so older adults might think supplementing with more would be better. On the contrary, it seems that older adults (55 and up) tend to be more sensitive to melatonin's effects and can experience more grogginess the following day at high doses. Researchers recommend older adults take melatonin at lower doses (around .1 mg), to not disrupt their circadian rhythms and cause daytime drowsiness. This supplement is not recommended for those with dementia.

The FDA doesn't regulate supplements like melatonin because they are generally presumed safe. Unfortunately, this means the actual concentration of melatonin in your supplements may not be what it says on the label. One study4 analyzed 31 melatonin supplements and found that actual melatonin content ranged from -83 percent to +478 percent of the labeled content.

One way to ensure you're getting what it says on the label is to look for melatonin supplements approved by the United States Pharmacopeia, an independent non-profit organization. Look for the words "USP verified" when purchasing melatonin supplements.

For Kids

Short-term use of melatonin in small doses appears to be well tolerated and safe for most kids, though parents should be sure to consult with their child's doctor before giving them anything new.

As with adults, experts recommend that children start with the lowest possible dosage. They go on to say that most kids will respond to 0.5 mg or 1 mg8 of melatonin taken 30-90 minutes before going to bed. However, kids shouldn't take any more than 3-6 mg. Experts also suggest that melatonin could help children with autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but that a doctor should be consulted and monitor the child taking it.

Keep in mind, though, that for kids between the ages of 8 and 14, there is some evidence to suggest melatonin supplements might affect the onset of puberty. This is because the hormone melatonin is vital in the onset of puberty in both males and females.

In younger children, melatonin is produced9 in much higher quantities. When the production of melatonin drops off significantly, puberty is triggered. If you continue to supplement with melatonin during this time, some scientists believe the decrease in melatonin that triggers puberty could be delayed, though more evidence is needed.

How Long Does Melatonin Last?

Luckily, melatonin is not a supplement that you'll need to build up in your system for some time before it starts working. This means you can take it 1 - 2 hours before you plan on going to bed and you should feel the effects within that time. Sometime between 4 and 8 hours after you take melatonin, your melatonin levels will return to their normal basal concentrations, or, your normal baseline.

For some, this means melatonin helps get them to sleep but is not so helpful in keeping them asleep. If this is the case for you, you might try taking a "prolonged release" melatonin supplement, which delivers the melatonin over an extended period of time rather than all at once.

At low doses (around 3 mg or less), most people do not report daytime grogginess after taking melatonin. If you do experience this, you might be taking a dose that is too high for you, and you can try lowering it. Prolonged-release melatonin might also cause more grogginess the next day, so if you're experiencing this with these types of supplements, try switching to a regular, immediate-release formula.