All About Melatonin

What To Consider When Using The Popular Over The Counter Sleep Aid 

Insomnia was on the rise even before the pandemic, but the sleep disorder is impacting even more people now—so much so that pandemic-era insomnia has earned its own special moniker: “corona-somnia.” A combination of factors like changes to our routines, less physical exertion during the day and anxiety all contribute to the growing problem. One way consumers often try to “treat” insomnia is by taking melatonin, an over the counter supplement.  In fact, melatonin has seen a sharp rise in popularity during the pandemic, with sales in the category increasing by 40% in 2020. But is taking melatonin and calling it a day a good way to address insomnia? What considerations should one make when choosing and using a sleep aid?

While OTC supplements (especially natural substances) may seem mild and harmless, any ingestible product used to help with sleep works on the brain. For that reason, consumers should always be cautious and fully educated on what it is that they’re taking.

One of the most common and well known over the counter sleep supplements on the market, melatonin is fairly safe and easy to use overall. Manufacturers have made it easy to take by developing a wide range of consumable melatonin products, everything from gummies to lattes are available—just pop into the herbal supplements section of the supermarket.

Even though melatonin is popular, easy to procure and a natural hormone we already produce, it remains important to be cautious and purposeful when trying out melatonin supplements for sleep. It’s not actually the best solution for chronic insomnia either. 

How does melatonin work?

Melatonin is a hormone produced from the pineal gland to regulate our sleep cycle; when it is released, it signals to our body that it is time for rest. Typically, natural melatonin production increases after the sun sets (which is part of why you might feel more tired in the winter if you live in the Northern Hemisphere). This cycle helps us maintain a normal sleep-wake rhythm. 

What should you think about when purchasing melatonin?

When it comes to over-the-counter melatonin, there are several factors to keep in mind. Melatonin comes in a natural and a manmade version; the natural version comes from animals and runs the risk of carrying viruses, so you may want to veer on the side of synthetic in this case. Because it is over the counter, melatonin is also not regulated as strictly as prescription aids and so different brands will produce fairly different product. There’s no real guarantee that the supplements will be effective and you may experience different results from supplements made by different companies. Some may even contain more or less actual melatonin than others. 

How should melatonin be taken? 

Melatonin is not actually designed for long-term use, but rather is meant to help get your sleep cycle back on track. It could be a good place to start for those trying to treat situation-based insomnia—like anxiety before or after a surgery—in preparation for a disrupted sleep cycle due to jet lag, and for those with delayed sleep-wake disorder. For those suffering chronic insomnia, the best place to start is actually with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Melatonin is typically a time-release substance, so it’s best to take it about 30 minutes before you’d like to start getting sleepy. Be sure to avoid artificial light like overhead lights and blue light from your phone when you are trying to sleep—melatonin production and effectiveness is influenced by light. Experts advise using it over time to get back on track, no more than one to two months. 

If timed incorrectly or used too frequently, melatonin consumption can disrupt the sleep cycle so it’s important to be strategic and consult your doctor if you are considering using melatonin to address your sleep issues. It’s also always best to start with a low dose—you can increase overtime if you need to, but when it comes to melatonin more isn’t always more effective.

Melatonin and alcohol 

Another consumer good that has seen sales on the rise during the pandemic is alcohol. While alcohol is known for making you drowsy, it can also negatively impact your sleep cycle. Which means, when you have a drink at night, you should probably cap it off with some melatonin to stabilize your circadian rhythm, right? WRONG! While it may be tempting to mix melatonin with alcohol, especially if you are desperate for a great night of sleep, they shouldn’t necessarily be combined. In fact, the combination can have quite a few side effects—including increased anxiety and dizziness. More importantly, using them both at the same time can cause the melatonin to be less effective and could simply result in an even more disrupted sleep-wake cycle. 

Anytime you’re considering trying a new supplement or are struggling with your sleep, be sure to confer with your doctor. While melatonin can prove to be a useful solution for certain types of sleep problems, it isn’t the only solution. A medical professional can help you weigh multiple options based on your health history and specific concerns.

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