Is melatonin a safe sleeping pill?

I took melatonin regularly for a while, but started to have queries and doubts so have recently gone off it. If you have autoimmune issues and have turned to melatonin for sleep perhaps see if the below resonates.

Image by Mark Borthwick
Image by Mark Borthwick

The deal with melatonin 

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that helps control your sleep and wake cycles. It’s taken in supplement form to adjust the body’s internal clock, especially for long flights, jet lag and adjusting sleep-wake cycles in people whose work schedule fluctuates regularly.

The thing is:

It’s a hormone. Hormone therapy is a complicated topic. Taking extra hormones when you don’t need them can cause dysfunctional communication between the hypothalamus and the pituitary, which is the master hormone regulation centre in the body. This will lead to further hormone imbalances.

The science is still out 

Very little scientific research has been done on melatonin supplements as a sleep aid, especially for adults. Although some studies conclude it’s not dangerous in the short term, several conclude that melatonin doesn’t improve total sleep time, or reduce the time it takes to fall asleep in the long term. Check out these studies here and here for more detail. It is also not effective in treating sleep disorders.

And there’s this:

It’s not a sleep initiator. Melatonin does not increase sleep drive or the need for sleep. Insomnia is not caused by melatonin deficiency and melatonin is not a sleep hormone. In fact, it has very little to do with the act of falling asleep. It works by telling your brain when it’s time to sleep. It’s produced in the presence of darkness and simply happens to correlate with sleep cycles.

More melatonin doesn’t mean more sleep. Nor better sleep. Melatonin’s main job in the body is to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Some studies suggest that melatonin can enhance cortisol (another stress hormone) levels, which will disrupt all your body’s processes when it’s out of whack.

Results are very inconsistent and often people suffering from an additional disease, rather than insomniacs, were used as test subjects. A 2013 study concluded, “With melatonin, no beneficial effect on vitality was seen. At 12 months, none of the sleep parameters differed significantly from placebo.”

But it makes me sleepy. Yep, it will. Melatonin induces drowsiness because it is a stress hormone. Your cognition is impaired and you become less reactive. Your body’s core temperature drops and blood is restricted to the brain, heart and organs. These are all symptoms we associate with sleep and confuse with real sleepiness.

But excess stress hormones will eventually stress out the body. Melatonin supplementation inhibits your body’s metabolic rate. When your metabolism goes down, adrenaline goes up in direct response. And when adrenaline goes up, so does melatonin, which further slows the metabolism. This perpetuates the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system, which worsens your sleep quality. It’s a vicious cycle.

So should I use it for travel or jet leg?

I’ll be honest. I do. I figure taking melatonin the first night I arrive in a new time zone might help my body shift its circadian rhythms. But as I said, the science is out. While this study finds it’s safe for short term use, it’s not a long term solution. And this study concludes it offers “no meaningful benefits” for jet lag or shift workers.

What about insomnia?

There are better ways to combat insomnia. I’ve shared some of my tricky tips here.
Readers and friends have shared their tips here.

Do you use melatonin? What conclusions have you drawn?


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