Everything you wanted to know about Melatonin but were too tired to ask
Ever heard of an Ambien horror story? Tales of insane behavior while on the popular hallucinogenic sleeping pill are big online, from blackout binge eating to, in the case of reality show star Jackie Warner, a “sleep driving” car accident and arrest for felony assault.
For a drug that’s supposed to help you sleep, it doesn’t sound very relaxing. Fortunately, there’s a more natural path to a good night’s sleep. Melatonin is a hormone produced by our own bodies – the brain’s pineal gland, specifically – that’s released when darkness falls and it’s time to sleep. You can take it in a pill form to help adjust to jet lag and other disruptions to your body clock.
What is Melatonin?
Natural is good, but effective is even better. Melatonin is both. The medical review organization Cochrane dubbed melatonin “remarkably effective” for treating jet lag and recommends it to adults traveling across five or more time zones.
Categorized by the FDA as a nutritional supplement rather than pharmaceutical, it’s widely available in the United States in a variety of forms, including pills, lozenges, kid-friendly gummies and even energy drink-styled “relaxation” shots and beverages one can find in gas station convenience stores. Just try not to confuse the melatonin and energy drinks on your next road trip.
In 2016, approximately 3.1 million Americans were found to have used melatonin, including almost 420,000 children. Some studies suggest melatonin can even be beneficial for people with specific health issues, like kids with ADHD or autism, or adults with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. It may even have some anti-aging applications.
Don’t worry — no human pineal glands are milked to create the melatonin supplements you’ll find on pharmacy and grocery shelves. It’s typically made in a lab through a process patented by MIT in 1995, which is even vegetarian-friendly.
Tips for taking Melatonin
The most effective dose can vary wildly from person to person, although an MIT report says just 0.3 mg to 1 mg should do the trick. But some melatonin enthusiasts say they take up to 5 mg and still wake up feeling refreshed and sharp.
To fall asleep at the right time, it’s important to taking melatonin about 20 to 30 minutes in advance of when you’d like to drift off. And only take it when you’re sure you can get at least six hours of rest. Of course, avoiding alcohol and other sedatives is also key to melatonin success.
Melatonin side effects
While nobody has woken up following a melatonin-enhanced slumber to discover they’ve baked a cake in the middle of the night (or worse, written career-threatening “Ambien e-mails”), it can still have side effects. Some report grogginess, vivid dreams, and, ironically, restlessness.
Plus, some health experts warn that taking melatonin can actually disrupt our bodies’ own ability to produce it, especially if taken long term. “Ultimately, what can happen is the gland that makes that hormone may become weakened and imbalanced,” says Dr. Anthony Salzarulo, a holistic health practitioner in New York City.
Kickstarting your own Melatonin
If you’re concerned about becoming reliant on melatonin supplements, there are ways to try and boost your own supply. Salzarulo recommends prompting the pineal gland to get cooking by sleeping in the darkest an environment as possible, using a blackout shade or wearing an eye mask if necessary. Light is what tells the pineal gland it’s time to slow down – a reason why Al Pacino’s character battled sleep in the movie Insomnia‘s endlessly sunny Alaskan setting (his guilty conscience didn’t help, either).
Going to bed and waking up at the same time can also help set your body’s circadian rhythm and prompt healthy melatonin secretion. When jet lag threatens to disrupt that schedule, travel blogger John DiScala, aka Johnny Jet, recommends adjusting your sleeping pattern in advance of a time zone-hopping trip.
“Get on local time as soon as possible,” he says. “Adjust your watch once on the plane, and if you’re leaving at 9 am and its 9 pm in Tokyo, try and eat something that’s a dinner, not breakfast. And try to sleep when you’re supposed to. That’s why you have to bring an eye mask, earplugs, and some music or a boring podcast that will make you sleep.”
Whether it’s ramping up your own melatonin production or popping a supplement, relying on this natural sleep aid can be a much more relaxing option than the addictive — and sometimes hazardous — drugs commonly used to knock you out. And knowing you won’t be sleep-emailing your boss your old prom photos just might help you sleep more soundly, too.
Written by Lawrence Ferber
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