A good night’s sleep is the dream, yet, for many of us, adequate sleep is elusive (according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three adults fail to get the seven hours a night that most of us need). With this in mind, it makes sense that more and more people are turning to aids like melatonin to bring on those sweet zzzs — but could all that melatonin come with potential health risks?
See also: 9 reasons you can never get enough sleep.
A study published this week in the medical journal JAMA reports that, as of 2018, Americans were taking more than double the amount of melatonin as they did a little more than a decade earlier. Specifically, the study found that the prevalence of melatonin use greater than 5 mg/d grew from 0.08 per cent in 2005–2006 to 0.28 per cent in 2017–2018.
While melatonin is often thought of as a somewhat benign sleep aid, this growing frequency of use may warrant pause. As the study notes, “Although melatonin is generally regarded as safe, adverse effects have been reported, and data on long-term use and high-dose use are scarce.”
So what exactly is melatonin, and should users be careful when taking it more often?
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What is melatonin, and what does it do?
Melatonin is a hormone, which our bodies produce naturally, that helps to regulate our sleep cycles. Ideally, more melatonin is released in the brain when it’s dark outside (i.e., when we should be preparing to sleep), and less is released when it gets light (when we want to wake up).
When we have trouble falling asleep in the short term (for example, when jet-lagged or when working shifts at odd hours), over-the-counter melatonin supplements may help encourage that sleep cycle.
Related: Our ancestors might hold the key to getting enough sleep.
Can taking melatonin as a sleep aid regularly be harmful?
Though there’s no definitive answer — and while melatonin supplements may be effective in the short-term — the long-term impact of melatonin use is not clear. Some wonder if there may be health risks associated with taking melatonin more often or in greater quantities (which, as the study published in JAMA reports, is happening for more and more adults).
“There is a view that if it’s natural, then it can’t hurt,” sleep specialist Rebecca Robbins told CNN when discussing the potential effects of melatonin on kids. “The truth is, we just really don’t know the implications of melatonin in the longer term, for adults or kids,” she said.
Similarly, Health Canada notes that melatonin should not be used for a period of time longer than four weeks (without consultation from a healthcare professional). Additionally, Health Canada also urges caution for parents and caregivers, encouraging them “to consult a healthcare professional before giving melatonin to children and adolescents.”
What’s the best way to fall asleep?
If you have trouble falling asleep, there are other tactics you can try, until you find what works best for you.
Looking at your diet is a good place to start, as recent research suggests that better sleep quality could be linked to a diet that is high in protein, complex carbs and healthier fats.
Other potential remedies for insomnia include setting up a sleep ritual, meditation, cutting back on blue light and even keeping your dog close while you doze.
Related: Foods to eat (and avoid) to help you fall asleep faster.