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Does Melatonin Help You Sleep?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 17 Nov 2023

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

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If you’ve dabbled at all with natural sleep aids, then surely you’ve crossed paths with melatonin.

According to a 2022 Consumer Reports survey, melatonin was by far the sleep supplement of choice for American adults. It beat out the likes of valerian, magnesium, and CBD. You can get it in gummies, pills, chewable tablets, and even in a liquid dropper. In 2020, melatonin sales cleared $820 million in the U.S.

The two things experts usually say about melatonin are (1) it works and (2) don’t take too much of it. So with all the attention, it’s worth looking at what melatonin is, whether or not it helps you sleep, and why so many health professionals offer a word of caution.

Does Melatonin Help You Sleep?

What Is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in your body. Specifically, it’s produced in the pineal gland, which is this tiny little endocrine factory tucked into the back part of your brain. The pineal gland gets information from your retinas about how much light the body’s receiving. When it’s dark outside, melatonin production ramps up, but during daylight hours, the melatonin output slows down. Considering this, scientists believe that melatonin plays an important role in regulating your body’s circadian rhythm.

This is also why experts recommend turning down the lights before you go to bed. Dim lighting can help you sleep better because more darkness means more melatonin. While there’s some evidence suggesting that nutritional factors or age can contribute to melatonin levels (the body produces less as you get older), light exposure is by far the biggest factor in melatonin production.

Of course, we humans have done a phenomenal job inventing different forms of artificial light that can trick our brains into staying awake. Lamps and laptop screens may be useful for finishing a term paper, but they’re horrible for healthy sleep hygiene. I’m often on my computer in the evening, so I keep the brightness at the lowest possible level and use blue-light-blocking glasses (I highly recommend these) to simulate night as much as possible. But for those who can’t follow a natural sleep cycle — such as people who work nights and need to stay wide awake during peak darkness — it’s possible to artificially supplement the body’s melatonin production.

Do Melatonin Supplements Help You Sleep?

Synthetic melatonin is made from hydroxylated tryptophan, which is an amino acid found mostly in animal products. You’ve heard the word tryptophan from your auntie at Thanksgiving who says eating turkey always makes her sleepy, even though experts say turkey-induced drowsiness is a myth.

Studies involving melatonin have suggested that while it may help you fall asleep faster, particularly if you’re fighting jet lag, it’s not a cure for insomnia. Given how popular melatonin supplements are, the relatively modest effects may be surprising to most people. A 2013 study found that melatonin reduced sleep latency (i.e., helped someone fall asleep faster) by 7 minutes. Study participants who took melatonin slept on average 8 minutes longer than those who took the placebo.

If you’re normally tossing and turning for fifteen minutes before you can get comfortable, maybe cutting that time to sleep in half is appealing. A little extra sleeping in will also give you more REM time, which may increase the likelihood of having a vivid dream. But researchers caution that the body naturally produces enough melatonin on its own, so you really shouldn’t need more than 1-2 mg, unless your doctor has said otherwise. Instead of relying on supplements, a better long-term play is to establish a healthy bedtime routine that allows your body to get tired on its own. 

Can You Get Addicted to Melatonin?

Good news on this front: medical researchers say melatonin supplements are not addictive. You might get into a routine where you feel like you can’t sleep without it, but your body won’t actually form a dependency.

Some have floated the idea that an overreliance on synthetic melatonin can cause a decrease in your body’s natural chemical production, which may in turn hurt your ability to fall asleep in the future. However, there aren’t enough long-term studies to make any definitive ruling on this. Natural melatonin production decreases anyway as we age, so it’d be hard to say supplements were the cause.

The bigger danger is not that you’ll become dependent on melatonin but that you may use it as an excuse for other unhealthy sleep habits. For example, if you’re scrolling social media in a bright room at 11:30 pm while drinking a huge mug of coffee, popping a melatonin at 11:45 is not going to absolve those sleep sins. Especially if you get to the point where you feel like you need large doses of melatonin just to calm down, there’s probably something else going on that you should look into. If you are chronically restless or not sleeping well, it’s always best to discuss this with your doctor. 

Has melatonin worked for you? Tell us your story and what you’ve found to be effective.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He writes about natural sleep remedies and healthy sleep habits.

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