With Daylight Savings Time around the corner it can be tempting to look for a quick fix for healthier sleeping patterns. To get some much-needed shut-eye, Americans are increasingly turning toward an over-the-counter supplement called melatonin.
"Melatonin is a hormone that our brains secrete in response to darkness," says Meeta Singh, M.D., a sleep specialist at Henry Ford Health. "People call it a sleep hormone, but it's more like a light hormone."
FAQ: Melatonin As A Sleep Aid
Many people rely on melatonin to help them feel drowsy. People use it to minimize jet lag, quiet bedtime anxiety and alleviate insomnia. But what exactly is melatonin and how does it work? We asked Dr. Singh to answer these and other questions about the popular sleep supplement:
Q: What is melatonin?
A: Melatonin is a hormone that signals the brain when it's time to sleep. When the pineal gland in the brain (also called the third eye) senses darkness, it begins secreting melatonin to slow down physiological functions.
Q: What can I do to influence my body's natural production of melatonin?
A: The best way to influence melatonin levels is to play with light. With the invention of the lightbulb, we have artificial light. So even though our bodies and brains aren’t designed to work when it’s dark, modern inventions allow us that opportunity. The unfortunate side effect is that light during nighttime hours can suppress our natural melatonin levels and shift our bodies’ internal clocks. The best approach is to encourage the natural production of melatonin by keeping conditions dark at night and avoiding light.
Q: Will taking melatonin help me get better sleep?
A: It's possible, but it’s not as effective as using external light. The only exception is if you're suffering from jet lag. If you took a jet and rapidly went across time zones, then your biological clock will be scrambling to get set to the new time zone. The best way to hasten that adjustment is with light. But taking melatonin about an hour before bedtime may also help speed up the process.
Q: Do melatonin supplements have side effects?
A: Melatonin appears to be safe for humans, but most supplements also contain other ingredients like magnesium and serotonin. Those substances may have side effects or interact with other medications. It's also important to keep in mind that poorly timed melatonin administration can disrupt the normal circadian rhythm, exacerbate insomnia and worsen depressive illness. And there's no governmental oversight or regulation of dietary supplements, including melatonin. Without standardized regulation processes, there's no way to know how much melatonin is in your supplement, no matter what it says on the bottle.
Q: What are some natural ways to promote better sleep?
A: There are things you can do to induce sleep that don't involve supplements. Three key considerations:
- Light exposure: Dim the lights an hour or so before you want to fall asleep and avoid exposure to bright light during the evening hours.
- Exercise: Exercise too late and you may have trouble falling asleep. On the flip side, well-timed exercise can make it easier to nod off, particularly if you use physical activity as a source of stress relief.
- Food: Eating a heavy meal before bed can interfere with sleep onset. Every organ in the body has its own internal clock. When you eat close to bedtime, your stomach needs to wake up to produce the digestive enzymes required to break down your food.
While melatonin is generally safe, it usually isn't necessary. A better approach: Use darkness to signal your body that it's time to sleep and step into the light to wake up in the morning.
"If you take melatonin in the form of a pill and you're sitting in front of bright light, you're sending mixed signals to the brain that could make insomnia worse," Dr. Singh says. "Before you jump on the path of trying to medicate a sleep problem, explore the factors that are contributing to your inability to sleep. If you reach a point where you think you need to supplement with melatonin, that's a sign to see a sleep specialist."
Dr. Meeta Singh specializes in sleep medicine and is the Service Chief and Medical Director for the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Medical Center – Columbus in Novi and at Henry Ford Medical Center – New Center One in Detroit.