Melatonin. Some swear by it, others claim it does nothing for them. A favorite of world travelers and weary parents, melatonin seems to be praised and dismissed in equal numbers. While many of us have heard about melatonin supplements, or maybe even tried them ourselves, you might still wonder if melatonin is the key to your best sleep. We’ve rounded up the most frequently asked questions people have about melatonin – and the answers.

We’ll explore how melatonin works, whether it’s recommended for kids and more. It’s always best to ask your primary care doctor or clinician before taking something new, including melatonin, but in the meantime, we provide more information about the popular sleep-regulating supplement.

What melatonin does

First things first – what is melatonin?

Melatonin is one of our body’s natural hormones. Its job is to help maintain our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm is what dictates our sleep/wake cycles, among other functions. It helps our bodies go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. When melatonin is not in balance, it can disrupt our sleep cycles. When that happens, we can experience alertness at bedtime and sleepiness during the day, and may increase risks for other health conditions like obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder or seasonal affective disorder.

Melatonin, in short, is a hormone with an important role to play. But what if your body doesn’t produce enough of its own? There are some circumstances where you may want to use melatonin supplements, which are widely available over the counter. Before you buy them, run it by your doctor – they can help you determine if melatonin supplements could be a good option for you.

Uses for melatonin supplements

Melatonin supplements are sometimes recommended in several circumstances, all related to getting your circadian rhythms on track. People who are blind or can’t discern daylight and nighttime (which are important guideposts for our circadian rhythms) are often advised to take melatonin.

Additionally, traveling through different time zones can throw your wake/sleep cycles off balance, so melatonin is recommended to treat and prevent jetlag.

Finally, melatonin can be used in cases of sleep disorders, including insomnia. Even when your sleep schedule is just a few hours off, melatonin has been found to help people get back to normal.

How melatonin supplements work

Melatonin supplements contain a synthetic version of the natural hormone. They work just the same as the melatonin your body produces, only you get to choose when to take it. They are intended to boost our naturally produced melatonin levels, helping us fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly when needed.

Supplements come in a variety of different forms:

  • Pills
  • Gummies
  • Liquid
  • Sprays
  • Creams

Each of these forms have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, gummies can be tasty but could cause digestive issues in some people due to added sugar alcohols. On the other hand, liquid melatonin doesn’t always taste the best, so it might sit on the shelf. It’s important to weigh the benefits of each kind of supplement to determine what will work best for you.

The potential benefits of melatonin supplements

Melatonin supplements have a lot of benefits, including the obvious – helping with short-term sleep problems. They’ve been shown to be especially useful for help falling asleep, staying asleep and going back to sleep if you wake up.

In addition, melatonin supplements offer other benefits, including:

  • They’re unlikely to cause dependency problems
  • They don’t make you feel sluggish or foggy (that “hungover” feeling) when you wake up
  • Melatonin supplements have been used safely for years and are considered safe for the general adult public

The possible side effects to melatonin supplements

Over-the-counter melatonin is classified as a supplement and is therefore not regulated by the FDA. That means it hasn’t had to pass as many standards and checks as other classes of drugs. Even so, side effects of using melatonin supplements are rare. Side effects, when they do occur, are generally mild and tend to go away when you stop using melatonin. These include:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

In very few cases, melatonin can interact with some medications. If you’re taking blood thinners, contraception, diabetes medication, anticonvulsants or immunosuppressants, it’s especially important to check with your doctor before starting melatonin.

Another thing to be aware of when taking melatonin is the drowsiness you will experience and how that might impact your daily life. As drowsiness is an effect of melatonin, never take melatonin supplements if you expect to drive or operate heavy machinery soon after. Keep your melatonin supplements in the bedroom (or an overhead bin) and use only when it’s safe for you to fall asleep. As with all supplements and medications, but particularly with melatonin gummies, which can be mistaken for candy, it’s important to keep these out of the reach of children.

The effects of melatonin usually kick in about 30 minutes after you take it, but it’s possible it will take longer. It’s a good idea to take melatonin about an hour before going to sleep, as this has been found to bolster your natural melatonin levels.

Be sure to give yourself the best chance for a restful sleep by using melatonin in conjunction with other good sleep habits, like stopping screen time, dimming lights and making sure you’re comfortable and relaxed.

How long melatonin lasts

The reason you don’t experience that groggy feeling in the morning after taking melatonin is that it doesn’t stay in your body very long. A dose usually is out of your system within 5 hours.

Other forms of melatonin

On the other hand, for those who have trouble staying asleep throughout the night, extended-release melatonin can be helpful. This form of melatonin stays in your body longer, so that whatever time you wake up during the night, it’s likely you’ll have enough melatonin in your system to help you fall back asleep.

Is melatonin addictive?

As we mentioned, it’s not likely for you to become addicted to melatonin. Because it’s the same hormone as what your body produces naturally, it’s thought that you can’t become dependent on it.

However, melatonin supplements may become a habit, because once you’re finding your happy sleep groove with melatonin supplements, you might be hesitant to go without them. Even if your body doesn’t crave melatonin, your brain might think it’s essential to take for good sleep.

Melatonin safety

Melatonin is considered safe, but it’s possible to take too much, which can impact the chemical balance of your brain. This can cause dizziness, mood changes, stomach issues and headaches.

Since it’s not as regulated as medications that must be cleared by the FDA, it’s possible that some melatonin products may recommend doses that are higher than you need. Always take the lowest amount possible and talk to your doctor before starting anything labeled “extra strength.”

When is melatonin recommended for adults?

Doctors will often recommend melatonin for healthy adults, depending on the specifics of their need and their health situation. But when it is recommended, it’s usually for a short amount of time and for specific uses. For example, it may be good to use melatonin supplements for getting back to your regular sleep schedule after jet lag or other sleep disruptions such as shift changes or short-term anxiety.

Who shouldn’t take melatonin

As mentioned before, melatonin supplements can interact with certain medications, so if you have diabetes, are taking immunity suppressants or blood thinners, or using certain kinds of contraceptives or anticonvulsants, don’t take melatonin unless cleared by your doctor.

Elderly people may want to exercise caution when considering melatonin. Studies have shown that melatonin breaks down more slowly in older populations and can lead to daytime drowsiness. In addition, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a report in 2015 that stated people living with dementia should not take melatonin.

Melatonin and pregnancy

Even though pregnancy and early parenthood are prime examples of when you’ll experience disrupted sleep, melatonin isn’t the answer in these cases. Melatonin and its impact on pregnancy and breastfeeding is not known, so until more research has been done, it’s not advisable to use melatonin supplements when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Is melatonin recommended for kids?

There are plenty of nighttime gummies for kids that contain melatonin. They are generally considered safe for healthy children 5 and older, but you should check with your child’s pediatrician before using them. However, melatonin should only ever be used with lifestyle changes that can help your child fall asleep independent of melatonin. These can include limiting screen time, establishing a nighttime routine and moving bedtimes closer to the time your child falls asleep naturally.

If your child or teen is experiencing any of the following, it’s not a good idea to take melatonin:

  • Insomnia due to anxiety
  • Insomnia due to an injury or illness
  • Insomnia due to an underlying health condition

Melatonin supplements should always be kept out of the reach of children and never given to children under 3 years of age. Ages 4-5 should only take melatonin if recommended by their pediatrician.

Taking melatonin every night

Melatonin supplements are best for short periods of time, like recovery from jetlag, switching from a day to a night shift, or other temporary conditions. You can take it every night during these times, but it shouldn’t be used long-term.

As with many supplements, using melatonin consistently during these short periods of sleep cycle adjustments will yield the best results.

Natural melatonin sources

Melatonin can be found in your pineal gland, supplements and even some food. If you’re looking for an alternative source, try the following melatonin-rich foods.

  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Tart cherry juice
  • Oats
  • Mushrooms
  • Oily fish
  • Eggs

Some of these foods are excellent for before bed. Tart cherry juice, for example, has been found to be a very effective sleep aid. But don’t worry, you don’t have to have an oily fish snack before bed to get the benefit of melatonin-rich foods. These foods boost your regularly occurring melatonin supply and can help you stay on track with your circadian rhythms the whole day long.

Ways to get better sleep without taking melatonin

The best sleep is, of course, the sleep that comes naturally, at the right time, for the right length of time. Before trying medications or supplements, try lifestyle changes that can help you get better sleep. This might mean unplugging from your screens two hours before bedtime, exercising at the right time of day, making tweaks to your diet and ditching caffeine after noon. Melatonin supplements may be helpful, but there’s no replacing the kind of natural sleep your body is meant to have.

If you’re not able to fall asleep on your own, talk to your primary care doctor or clinician to discuss any sleep challenges you’re experiencing. Melatonin might be an option for you to try.