- Melatonin is a peptide hormone that causes you to fall asleep, and has some other properties like being a very strong antioxidant.
- Although melatonin is sometimes thought of as a dangerous “cure all,” it’s just a very safe way to fall asleep faster, and the benefits and harms stop there.
- Melatonin supplements are great for people who cannot fall asleep quickly and time-release formulations are perhaps good for people who wake up during the night. The only issue is which melatonin dosage you want to take.
Back in my day, steroids were evil.
Should never take them, they would literally make your liver shiv your spleen then sell your kidneys for drug money.
Testosterone enanthate, anastrozole, androstenedione … oh wow these big words are annoying—hormones, yeah, hormones are evil.
Ever wondered why the only (good) dietetic joke for a few decades was “How do you make a hormone? Don’t pay her!”
It’s because steroids also turn your gonads into sex workers, also your lungs for some reason.
Hormones will kill you, end of story. Or so I was told.
Turn the clock forward a decade and now we’re feeding our kids hormones so they’ll sleep better …
Clearly hyperbole, since the topic we’re talking about is melatonin (technically a hormone sometimes given to kids) but I have to be honest—I have yet to run into a young mother who, upon learning melatonin is a hormone, gets thrown into a hilarious panic much to my bemusement. Curse these well educated consumers!
All concerns I’ve ever seen about melatonin have been online, where I haven’t been able to delight in their confusion, but ooooh boy are those criticisms online … over the top and repetitive.
It seems that the fear of “hormones” in general is still very much alive despite us having the best example for an “exception to the rule” in melatonin—the hormone that can’t seem to hurt people.
The thing is, why in the seven hells is melatonin so absurdly safe? Why is it so hard, if not impossible, to find an instance of a melatonin overdose despite the dosage you take?
I’ll be honest, I never expected it to be safe the first time I read about it.
Combining what I knew about hormones in general, and how the body adapts to them (reducing synthesis of your own hormones) and what I knew about benzos (a class of pharmaceutical sleep aids that could legitimately kill you with withdrawal symptoms) I thought melatonin was going to be anathema.
But, nope, just a legit solid and safe compound.
Table of Contents
Melatonin is a peptide, or short amino acid chain, that’s found in almost every plant and animal on our planet. A potent antioxidant, multifaceted, but best known for its role in sleep.
In humans, we get the majority of our melatonin from our diets. Not directly, however, but instead through consuming the amino acid called L-tryptophan.
This is the same amino acid sometimes blamed for Thanksgiving-induced food comas despite it being in similar levels in other meats—as if some people don’t realize that eating copious amounts of anything will leave you tired.
L-tryptophan’s major role, as far as we’re concerned, is simply being present in the body so it can be converted to the amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (or 5-HTP which is a dietary supplement in its own right) that’s later converted to serotonin—a neurotransmitter.
Serotonin, then, can be converted into melatonin on an as-needed basis. The regulation is pretty simple, actually, and can be viewed as being in an “always on” state unless light is perceived through the eyes—in which case synthesis is suppressed and alertness results.
This is why darkness, regardless of the time of day, has the potential to make you sleepy and why falling asleep in a well lit room is more difficult than a dark one. It’s an impairment of melatonin synthesis.
It should also be mentioned that this synthesis is somewhat brain specific, since the eyes are incredibly close to neural tissue in function (in fact, some researchers consider everything except the eyeball itself to be part of the brain) and synthesis in other body parts is not heavily affected by light.
Yup, despite being known as the sleepy hormone, melatonin is produced everywhere in the body that serotonin is produced. Largely in the gut, and then via the blood can go anywhere.
Unfortunately, sometimes simply eating protein to get a large amount of L-tryptophan is not enough. Synthesis could be disturbed, you could want more than your body normally makes, or some other variable comes up that could encourage supplementation.
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By far, the most popular usage of melatonin is for sleep disorders. It’s mostly marketed for jet lag or “resetting” the circadian rhythm (our bodies internal perception of time) but most commonly used for minor sleep problems as a first line option.
Due to this, and due to it’s easy availability (it’s one of those supplements you can just buy in a supermarket) it has also been tested in sleep ailments like insomnia and sleep apnea.
Beyond the sleep issue, other common reasons people seek out melatonin tend to float around either it’s surprisingly potent antioxidant capacities (that, unfortunately, are not long lasting) and claims that it can increase growth hormone levels.
Unlike many supplements, due to the resounding success of melatonin in helping sleep there haven’t been many other claims—no need to make stuff up about it when it’s a gold standard after all. It seems to be typecast as “the” sleep hormone and almost nothing more.
All of melatonin’s benefits pertain to sleep. It’s rather difficult to put anything else in this section given the precedent they set—seriously, melatonin for sleep is potent and astoundingly well studied.
The major role for melatonin is that of reducing sleep latency.
When it comes to supplementing for sleep there are numerous parameters we can look at. Sleep duration (how long we stay asleep), sleep quality (how “effective” sleep is), and frequency of waking up during the night—sleep latency is how long it takes to fall asleep.
If you lay down in bed and, within five minutes, you pass out then you have great sleep latency. If it takes you an hour of tossing and turning then you have poor sleep latency—improving it would mean reducing sleep latency, which is the primary function of melatonin.
See, melatonin may be called “the” sleep hormone but it’s one of many. GABA and adenosine play big roles (as evidenced by benzodiazepine drugs and caffeine, respectively) and even glycine, an amino acid, seems to be a neurotransmitter that helps with sleep.
Melatonin’s specific role, it’s specialty, is in inducing sleep. Making your eyelids heavy, making you lethargic, and starting the sleep process so other hormones can kick it up a notch.
In these situations, supplementation of melatonin appears to be able to cause you to fall asleep faster assuming you had some impairment in sleep latency to begin with—won’t make you fall asleep in 3 minutes if it normally took you 5 but will make you fall asleep in 10 if it normally took you 30.
If you think that’s not too big of a deal then you’ve probably never dealt with long term sleep problems—insomnia-lite.
Your body has an internal circadian rhythm that’s partially independent of external sources. Once you make a specific bedtime a habit then you will find yourself getting sleepy at around that time each day.
Which makes for many problems traveling across time zones when you want to stay awake and productive for many more hours that your body honestly did not expect. Our bodies didn’t evolve to travel halfway around the damn world in less than a day after all.
This is the problem of jet lag, lethargy that comes from travelling to different time zones because your own internal circadian rhythm did not readjust, and it’s the most direct and practical application of melatonin since the inherent problem is in improper sleep latency.
Interestingly enough, this isn’t a light issue. Even shift workers, and blind people who cannot perceive light, suffer from the internal clock not lining up with the external clock. So where does melatonin, the light responsive sleep hormone, play in?
Studies on melatonin and jet lag find that melatonin works, and is currently among the best options (both supplemental and pharmaceutical) for helping you acclimatize to your new time zone. Simply put, the best application of the best purpose of this supplement.
Probably the best when you take safety into account since Ambien works better but, hey, don’t recommend benzodiazepines unless you have to after all.
It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a Cochrane meta-analysis use the word “remarkably.” These researchers are usually pessimistic fun destroyers (which is why I love them so much.)
Ultimately, melatonin is incredibly effective for any issue pertaining to abnormal circadian rhythms. This usually refers to jet lag and shift work, and melatonin works very well to help put you back on track—perhaps even better when paired with things that help you wake up, like caffeine, or perhaps some light therapies (red at night, blue-green in the morning.)
There have been some sleep issues that melatonin is surprisingly ineffective at helping, and of course melatonin is at times used for reasons that have no scientific support.
To get the most surprising, and conditional, out of the way first—melatonin does not improve sleep quality. At least, not inherently.
“Sleep quality” is a general term that’s thought to reflect how beneficial sleep is for you. Sometimes you have a good sleep, sometimes a bad one, and improving sleep quality is thought to help you lean towards good sleeps.
If you only sleep for four hours a night and, by using melatonin, you can get eight hours then of course overall sleep quality is going to increase—you have four more hours of sleep! If time-release melatonin keeps you from waking up in the night then, yes, sleep quality increases.
While there are many people who can rightfully claim improvements in sleep quality from melatonin it’s simply because they sleep more. What about situations where you do not technically sleep any more? People without issues with sleep latency?
Well, in these cases it seems that melatonin serves no further purpose.
In situations where melatonin does not improve sleep latency or keep you asleep there’s no inherent increase in sleep quality.
For people with no issues with sleep latency, melatonin does not seem to have any major role. Well, it does, but your synthesis rates and sleep hygiene are top notch and supplements won’t help you.
Growth hormone, similar to melatonin, is a hormone that has a very “pulsatile” nature.
It doesn’t just go up and stay up, it’s levels over time bounce like a sine curve at a nightclub. It also goes up a lot when you fall asleep, like the stack of things being balanced on your head at a party.
So it may seem a bit naive when people investigated a link between the two merely on the basis of “hurr durr sleep causes growth hormone and melatonin cause sleep; melatonin cause growth hormone?”
I’ve seen this before.
Studies have been conducted on supplements such as L-arginine and creatine finding increases in growth hormone but, ultimately, these minor spikes over a short period of time mean nothing to a pulsatile hormone. We would need 24-hour increases which these studies do not find and, in the case of melatonin, came back as a negative.
Melatonin is similar to L-arginine and creatine in concept—small spikes mean nothing.
We know sort of why this is happening (unlike the aforementioned two supplements)—melatonin seems to resensitize the pituitary gland, an area of the brain central to some hormones, to growth-hormone releasing hormone. Similar to how L-arginine works by limiting growth hormone resistance.
Melatonin is a part of the “shenanigan trio” of supplements that are claimed to increase growth hormone, and technically can, but are involved in some weird balancing act where they may also decrease growth hormone—either way, the changes are too transient to matter much.
One more “technically correct but practically irrelevant” situation is melatonin as an antioxidant. I mean, it technically is—most dietary supplements are technically antioxidants.
Melatonin works both directly, being able to seek and neutralize free radicals (the term we use to refer to oxidants in the body) and can also work indirectly by supporting some antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase. It’s relatively potent too, with one study assessing DNA damage noting it was stronger than resveratrol and green tea catechins.
This, however, just brings up the question “Isn’t my normal melatonin synthesis enough? What additional benefits would supplementation bring me?” To that question, I have no answer.
Reducing coughs, reducing back pain, those are practical takeaways.
Less oxidation though? Simply measuring a biomarker like this is the furthest thing from “practical takeaway.”
It would help, a bit, if the main benefits of melatonin were tied into melatonin’s antioxidant capacity but … they’re not—the actions of melatonin as a sleep-inducing hormone don’t care about oxidation rates, just its own receptor (the place melatonin activates like a key.)
Plus melatonin is eliminated from the body rather quickly so, even if we did want a “just in case” antioxidant it doesn’t work too well for this—you’d need to take it every other hour (melatonin has a half life between 1 to 2 hours at normal doses) unlike something like grape seed extract that stays in your body for a long time.
Ultimately, melatonin seems to be a technically strong antioxidant but practically has a few shortcomings. Paired with how no proven benefits of melatonin, that are relevant, are directly linked to it’s antioxidant profile mean that supplementation has yet to prove any real benefits.
For the purpose of this article I will be addressing, in depth, melatonin dosages for adults.
While melatonin is one of a few supplements with evidence of safety in children the best way to find the right melatonin dosage for kids is pretty simple—start low and increase until you reach the dose that keeps them incapacitated best.
That’s still a good rule of thumb for adults but studies have already done that a lot. Luckily for us, we have a good idea of where this rule of thumb will end up for you. In general:
- 300 mcg (0.3 mg) is usually seen as the lowest effective dose.
- 500 mcg (0.5 mg) is also a low effective dose. Low refers to dose, however, not potency—when it comes to people with no sleep issues this may be the ideal dose.
- 1-3 mg is the most common range when it comes to supplements. Some people benefit from these doses more than the microgram doses, some don’t.
- 5-10 mg have been used, with success, in some sleep impairments that were nonresponsive to the 1-3 mg range.
- Megadoses beyond the above, up to 40 mg, have been tested and appear safe but are not specifically linked to any unique benefits.
When it comes to melatonin doses, more is not necessarily better.
As an addendum, there’s a specific form of melatonin tablet known as “time-release” where it slowly releases melatonin over the course of the night rather than just immediately releasing it all at once. This form is best taken at 3 mg and is designed for people who continually wake up over the course of the night.
My personal recommendation is to consider both the 300 to 500 mcg range since, worst case scenario, if you need more you can just take more capsules, and perhaps also test out the 3 mg time-release to see what works for you.
If buying a supplement with other sleep support supplements then opt for a lower dose of melatonin.
An overdose refers to when you take too much of a drug and either get unforeseen side-effects or you get “too much of a good thing” and end up hurt.
For many supplements overdose is not too much of a concern, just some stomach issues and diarrhea since your body has built in refusal mechanisms in the intestines. However, when potency increases then overdose becomes more relevant of a concern—many supplements avoid overdose by simply being too weak to have any effect, let alone too much of one.
Melatonin, however, is uncommon in the sense that it is potent and rare in the fact that it does not seem to have a state of overdose—within reason, at least.
For a supplement that works at 300 mcg (0.3 mg) you would expect there to be side-effects when taken at 40 mg, about 130 times the dose, but melatonin seems unable to cause acute harm even in this situation.
The jury is still out when it comes to taking those astronomical doses every single day for months, especially in the morning when melatonin is not supposed to be up, so don’t do that. As long as you follow the standard dosing instructions, though, it’s hard (and maybe impossible) to overdose from melatonin.
Melatonin, despite it technically being a hormone sold in grocery stores for child consumption, is oddly safe. Like, incredibly safe.
There has yet to be a confirmed report of melatonin, inherently, causing significant damage to the user. Melatonin overdose seems quite unlikely for an adult (uncertain about children but if you’re force feeding an adult super loaded dose of any drug or supplement to your kids then maybe consider calling the friendly neighborhood child protective services).
Now, this isn’t to say that melatonin is completely side-effect free but the side effects we have to deal with are pretty laughable. If you take too much melatonin before you go to bed, or in a few cases are simply unlucky, then you may have some grogginess in the morning.
Melatonin was even able to avoid the major “do not operate heavy machinery while blah blah blah” issue since taking melatonin supplementation in the morning when the sun or your office’s fluorescent lights are bright seems to render it quite ineffective for sleep.
Of course, when things seem too good with already conducted scientific studies it’s time to throw theories at it until it makes everybody sad. Could melatonin, theoretically, have any harm?
The safety of melatonin is best kept to the range of doses under 3 mg (and even more-so under 1 mg), so if you were to take 10 mg every day for years then all of a sudden a good chunk of the safety data no longer applies to you.
While we have a few studies showing that supplementing melatonin does not abnormally affect your own synthesis levels, superdosing paired with time is an untested beast. Could also be harmless, could impair synthesis, nobody knows but not worth a risk in my opinion.
You know a supplement is safe when you’re trying to find harm with it, stretch the data as much as you can, input a few theories and all you end up saying is “maybe?”
First, let’s talk about the form of melatonin supplement that you’re using. Time-release or instant-release. Depending on which one you use recommendations differ.
Opt for instant-release (which we use in Lunar) if you want to be put to sleep pretty fast and opt for time-release if falling asleep isn’t as much an issue as waking up numerous times throughout the night.
Instant release is taken before bed, but the timing can change around a little bit. Start with taking it 30 minutes before your “ideal” sleep time and, during this time, focus on creating an “ideal sleep environment.” The 30 minutes can be changed to your liking after a bit of testing, whatever works best for you.
Time-release doesn’t have precise dosing, since the effect isn’t instant, and because of this you also won’t feel as much (or any) acute sedation from the time-release form. Simply take it as close as you can to bed so it stays in your system as long as it can.
If you tend to have a snack before bed, and by before bed I mean really close to bed, then use instant-release before you take your snack and wait about 10-20 minutes just so they don’t meet up in the stomach—this would slow down the melatonin’s absorption and render it less-than-instant.
The above issue does not matter with time-release melatonin. You can put that stuff in your ice cream if you wanted to and it would still work as intended.
Much like how melatonin taken before work in the morning is rendered mostly ineffective, if your sleep hygiene itself is horrible then you may not be able to maximize the benefits of melatonin.
So, at the very least, create a time frame before bed where you start to “cool off” a bit. Take measures to maximize melatonin—be it supplemental or your own synthesis. This includes stuff like:
- Stay away from fluorescent lights for about an hour before sleep.
- Use soft red lights to encourage melatonin synthesis. If you have a bath connected to the master bedroom then it’s a perfect place for them (or just, you know, get a table lamp but that’s not sexy.)
- Make sure the room is comfortable, and perhaps a bit on the cooler side.
- Make sure there are no loud sounds you can hear when falling asleep (your ears remain open when sleeping, sound still affects you even after falling asleep.)
- Sleep in the same area each night, at roughly the same time, and don’t associate the room with much else beyond sleep and sexy times.
Truth be told, I believe that if you’ve tested out the 300 mcg to 3 mg range and melatonin still can’t help you fall asleep then it’s your environment that’s to blame … or the genetic monkey wrench, it comes up in the weirdest places.
Melatonin is a good example of what happens when we get a large amount of data on a supplement. The times it benefits you get refined, and a lot of data on when not to take it also surfaces.
Melatonin, at the end of the day, is the GOLD STANDARD for reducing sleep latency, helpful for jet lag and shift work. It’s potency is pharmaceutical in this realm, even to the point where medical doctors will tell you to get melatonin if you have issues with sleep latency.
Other areas? Eh, astoundingly lacklustre.
It doesn’t help with other sleep issues outside of reducing sleep latency (or at least, not to a relevant degree) nor does it increase growth hormone levels.
It’s also surprisingly safe, and melatonin overdoses are more or less unheard of. The only side effects are potential grogginess in the morning if you take too much or are perhaps unlucky.
It’s a one trick pony but this pony has international pageant awards.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a source of fast-acting melatonin that includes three other ingredients proven to improve sleep, then you want to check out Lunar today.