“Melatonin is not a sleeping pill”
That’s what Dr. Michael Breus, “The Sleep Doctor,” tells patents who inquire about this popular supplement. Like me and many other practitioners who have researched this supplement, Dr. Breus believes melatonin is a bad answer to insomnia.
Dr. Breus, who was featured on the Dr. Oz show to discuss the problems with melatonin, explains,
This is the really important thing you should understand about melatonin: Melatonin is a sleep and body clock regulator – NOT a sleep initiator. Melatonin works with your biological clock by telling your brain when it is time to sleep. Melatonin does not increase your sleep drive or need for sleep. (Read more)
Why melatonin is bad for you?
“If it’s all natural, why is melatonin bad for you?” my mom asked, when I expressed my concern with this supplement after learning that she takes it on-and-off for her insomnia. “Boy, have I got a blog post for you!” I replied.
In short, melatonin is a hormone that correlates with sleep cycles and plays beneficial roles in numerous physiological functions. But melatonin supplements are neither a safe, natural nor effective solution to insomnia.
1. Melatonin supplements are hormone therapy
Are you taking melatonin? Then you are using hormone therapy. Hormone therapy is a very complicated topic ripe with detrimental health consequences when used carelessly. Often, hormone therapy is the “easy answer” to hormone imbalance and so the layperson, under the guidance of a practitioner or not, will reach for this answer. One common example of hormone therapy is progesterone cream. Melatonin is another.
The popularity of melatonin greatly worries me because hormone therapy should be approached with due caution, wisdom and knowledge. The practitioners whom I most respect use hormone therapy with the most extreme reservation, always preferring to use diet/lifestyle/supplement changes before using hormone therapy only when necessary as a last resort. Why? More often than not, including the case of melatonin, hormone therapy can do more harm than good.
This is the analogy I use when explaining the potential consequences of hormone therapy:
Most of the hormones in the body are governed by negative feedback, which works like your household thermostat. Say you set your thermostat to 72 degrees and the room temperature is 69 degrees. The heater kicks in to warm the room up. When the temperature reaches 72 degrees, the heat shuts off until the temperature drops again.
Administering hormones can actually shut off our body’s hormonal negative feedback loop. It’s like heating a room by a space heater and the furnace shuts off because it isn’t needed.
In this case, the “furnace shutting off” translates to the hypothalamus-pituitary connection becoming dysfunctional. When communication between the hypothalamus and pituitary – the master hormone-regulation center in the body – becomes compromised, it leads to many other hormone imbalances.
2. Melatonin is not a “sleep hormone”
While healthy levels of melatonin are key for optimal health, more melatonin doesn’t necessarily translate to better sleep. Why?
Insomnia is not caused by melatonin deficiency, and melatonin is not a sleep hormone. Actually, melatonin has very little to do with falling asleep. Melatonin is produced in the presence of darkness and it just happens to correlate with sleep cycles.
Emily from Butter Believer has done her research on melatonin and here’s what she found:
In spite of all the hype, very little scientific research has been done on melatonin supplements. And in fact, the limited evidence to support it as a sleep aid has indicated that it may only be useful in remedying jet lag and may help to induce sleep in the elderly—and again, these studies are often biased and paid for by the industry itself. They also were found to have used healthy sleepers as subjects, not people who have insomnia. And the results were very inconsistent.
There simple is no solid scientific evidence to support melatonin’s effectiveness for treating insomnia in young and middle-aged adults. NONE! And there have been several studies which actually concluded that melatonin definitively does not significantly improve total sleep time, nor reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. It has therefore been proven completely ineffective in treating insomnia. (Read more)
This makes sense, since melatonin is not a sleep hormone. It is a hormone with a wide range of physiological functions. Like I said, by playing a role in regulating our circadian rhythm, melatonin does tie into sleep patterns. But it does not induce sleep.
“But melatonin makes me sleepy!” many people say. Melatonin does induce a drowsy stupor because it is a stress hormone. This is misinterpreted as sleepiness. Remember, stress hormones are necessary and beneficial in the body in proper amounts (think cortisol), but excess stress hormones stress out the body .
3. More melatonin is not better
Research is now revealing that our production of melatonin not only governs our circadian rhythms, but plays a role in scavenging free radicals and supporting the immune system. We know that melatonin is crucial to health, but flooding your system with melatonin doesn’t automatically mean less free radicals and a better immune system. It’s all about melatonin balance.
Side effects of melatonin supplementation are relatively common and highly problematic. According to Dr. Breus, melatonin side effects include:
- Next-day grogginess
- Hormone fluctuations
- Vivid dreams and nightmares (Source)
Is jet leg an exception?
While I do not recommend ever taking melatonin to induce sleep, I think using a melatonin supplement for jet lag is a grey area. Jet lag is an extremely stressful situation from a physiological perspective, and should be minimized or avoided whenever possible. Taking a melatonin supplement the first night of your arrival in a new time zone might help your body shift its circadian rhythms. However, I would never personally take melatonin for jet lag due to the problematic aspects discussed here.
There are better ways to solve insomnia!
Many people try melatonin because they feel desperate for a good nights sleep. Skip the melatonin and try these truly natural and effective solutions for insomnia:
- Keep a strict sleep routine. Set a regular bedtime and wake-up time and stick to it, even on weekends. The time period between 10pm and 12pm is a key period for the body’s repair processes according to many naturopaths and Chinese medicine practitioners, so aim to be in bed before 10.
- Get exposure to sunlight – natural or artificial – immediately upon waking. In the morning as soon as you get out of bed, open your drapes and soak in the sunlight for a few moments. This immediately drops your melatonin levels, which will balance your circadian rhythm. If you don’t have access to bright natural light in the morning, something to consider is using a Wakeup Light, which I use and highly recommend. Here’s my experience with a wakeup light.
- Minimize blue light exposure after sunset. Blue light is emitted from screens (your phone, tablet, laptop, TV, etc.) and tricks your body into thinking that it is daytime. The body interprets blue light as daylight, and constant exposure after sunset is physiologically stressful. Install F.lux, a free program that eliminates the blue light from your phone/computer after sunset. Also, use orange-tinted glasses (these ones) to filter out blue light if you watch TV before bed.
- Balance your blood sugar. Balanced blood sugar is absolutely vital to falling asleep and staying asleep. It’s too complex to discuss in a few sentences, so please read my post 10 Ways to Balance Blood Sugar Naturally.
- Invest in a better mattress. You will spend 1/3 of your life on your mattress, so a proper mattress is an extremely important investment in your whole health. Conventional mattresses are drenched in chemical flame retardants that are linked to serious health issues. Further, a mattress that properly supports your back alignment and re-distributes your weight can drastically improve sleep quality. I found IntelliBED, a unique mattress company whose products improve sleep quality and are also free of toxic flame retardants. After my research, I switched to IntelliBED and highly recommend it. You can learn more about toxic mattresses and IntelliBED in my post here.
- Use a standing desk. Do you sit at a desk for much of the day? You probably haven’t heard this tip before, but transitioning to a standing desk can drastically improve your insomnia. This has been my experience, so I began recommending it to my friends and family members with insomnia and they reported fantastic results. You can purchase a standing desk or make your own very affordable version, just google, “DIY Standing Desk.”
How to balance melatonin naturally
As a followup to this post, I wrote 7 Ways to Balance Melatonin Naturally. These simple steps support your body’s production and regulation of melatonin, and also encourage overall wellbeing.
Have you used melatonin supplements? (Don’t forget to share this post using the buttons below with your friends and family members who use this supplement!)