Health Benefits and Uses of Melatonin
Produced naturally in the body, melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles and various hormones in the body. It is made from the amino acid tryptophan.The body produces melatonin during darkness (to prepare for sleep) and inhibits production during light. According to some proponents, taking melatonin in the form of synthetic melatonin supplements may help to improve sleep. In the 1970s and 1980s, research on the effects of melatonin on sleep led to the rising use of melatonin supplements as an alternative treatment for sleep disorders. In the mid-1990s, the popularity of melatonin supplements for jet lag and certain age-related disorders grew dramatically.
Uses for Melatonin
In alternative medicine, melatonin supplements are used to adjust the body’s sleep-wake cycle and are said to help with the following health concerns:
- Jet lag
- Sleeping disorders due to shift work
- Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
- Insomnia associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, cerebral palsy, and blindness.
- Sleep aid after discontinuing benzodiazepine medications
- To reduce the side effects of quitting smoking
- Insomnia due to medication use (e.g. beta-blockers)
Some proponents claim that melatonin may fight some forms of cancer and also reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy. In addition, melatonin is said to help with insomnia associated with certain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia.
Health Benefits of Melatonin
Here’s a closer look at the use of melatonin in alternative medicine and the possible health benefits:
1) Jet Lag
Travel across time zones disrupts the circadian rhythm. Preliminary evidence suggests that melatonin supplements can reduce certain jet-lag symptoms, particularly in people traveling eastward and/or crossing five or more time zones. Melatonin may improve alertness during the day, movement coordination, and to a lesser extent, daytime tiredness. The best results seem to occur when melatonin supplements are started on the day of travel and taken at the desired bedtime at the destination. It is usually taken for several days.
Melatonin appears to lessen the time it takes to fall asleep, but only by about 12 minutes (according to one study). A number of studies suggest that the optimal time to take melatonin supplements is between half an hour and two hours prior to the desired bedtime. There is some evidence that suggests that melatonin may be more helpful for older adults, possibly because they may have less melatonin in their bodies. Most studies have been small and short in duration, so further research is needed.
3) Shift Work
Although night shift work disrupts the circadian rhythm, there is little evidence supporting the notion that melatonin can adjust the sleep schedule in people who work at night and sleep during the day. It doesn’t appear to improve sleep after shift work or improve alertness during shift work.
4) Sleeping Problems Associated With Blindness
Melatonin may improve sleep disorders in people who are blind.
5) Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
Melatonin has been explored for people with delayed sleep phase syndrome. Research suggests that daily intake for up to four weeks may improve sleep, by reducing the amount of time needed to fall asleep and advancing the sleep onset time. However, within one year of discontinuing the supplements, a return to pre-treatment sleeping patterns have been noted.
6) Sleep Problems Associated With Developmental Disorders
There have been a number of preliminary studies and case reports on the use of melatonin in children with disorders that result in sleep difficulties, such as autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, or epilepsy. The studies conducted so far suggest that melatonin can shorten the time to fall asleep and lengthen sleep duration. However, the side effects and safety of long-term or regular melatonin use in children aren’t known.
Although studies have generally looked at melatonin use for up to two months, the side effects and safety of long-term or regular use of melatonin supplements aren’t known. Some experts consider the doses commonly found in melatonin supplements, 3 to 5 milligrams, to be too high and say that amounts in the range of 0.1 to 0.5 milligrams are more reasonable.Melatonin supplements should not be taken by children or adolescents, as there is some concern that melatonin supplements may adversely affect gonadal development. High doses of melatonin may have an inhibitory effect on ovulation. Pregnant and nursing women and women trying to conceive should avoid using melatonin. The side effects of melatonin may include drowsiness, headache, dizziness, vivid dreams, short-term mood alterations, and a temporary reduction in attention and balance. People shouldn’t drive or use machinery for five hours after taking melatonin. Melatonin may cause abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting, lower blood pressure, and rarely, hallucinations or paranoia.Melatonin may increase the risk of bleeding, so it should not be used by people using warfarin (Coumadin®) or other medications that influence blood clotting, or by people with bleeding disorders.Melatonin influences the production of other hormones. Increased male breast size and reduced sperm count have been reported. Melatonin may also affect blood sugar and insulin levels.Melatonin can influence immune function. It is not known how it would affect people with autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and type 1 diabetes. It shouldn’t be taken by transplant recipients. Melatonin supplements may worsen the symptoms in people with depression, so people with depression should only use melatonin under the supervision of a health care provider. It may also increase the risk of seizures in people with seizure disorders. Melatonin is broken down by the liver, so people with liver disease may need to avoid melatonin.
Melatonin may interact with drugs and supplements such as:
- High blood pressure medication
- Drugs that suppress the immune system, such as cyclosporine
- Antidepressant medication
- Corticosteroids (used for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis)
- Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam and other drugs that cause sedation
- Herbs that cause sleepiness or drowsiness, such as kava kava and valerian
- The herb St. John’s wort
Using Melatonin for Health
It’s important to note that self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. You can get tips on using supplements here, but if you’re considering the use of melatonin for any purpose, make sure to consult your primary care provider first.