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What Exactly Is Melatonin and Can It Make You Sleep Better?

Photo: Chad Johnston/Masterfile/Corbis

A bad night’s sleep can ruin your entire day. Consistently getting poor sleep, though, is enough to make a person crack — or at least turn to Dr. Google in desperation. Melatonin is often touted online as an alternative to prescription sleep aids; after all, it’s a hormone your body produces naturally to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle. So we looked into it: Will melatonin really help you sleep?

The short answer is that it depends on the cause of your sleep woes. Think of melatonin like a parent telling their kid it’s bedtime: As light decreases your brain produces more of the hormone, working like an internal clock that tells you to hit the hay. But melatonin doesn’t necessarily help you stay asleep, says Andrew W. Varga, M.D., Ph.D., a sleep medicine specialist at NYU Langone Sleep Disorders Center and clinical instructor at the NYU School of Medicine. And if you take a supplement ten or 15 minutes before bed, it may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, but the effects are mild. Dr. Varga says it’s best for people who are jet-lagged, suffering from shift-work disorder, or have circadian-phase delay, which means their natural tendency is to go to sleep later and wake up later.

“I rarely recommend melatonin as a sleep aid, per se,” he says. “But melatonin is very much recommended for shifting your circadian phase.” When someone with a circadian-phase issue tries to go to sleep at a “normal” time, they might find themselves lying awake for hours. In that case, he might suggest taking a low dose of melatonin three to four hours before their intended bedtime to help shift the cycle backward. And while some people report feeling groggy the next day, in general melatonin is not typically known to have that effect.

For people who chronically toss and turn, Dr. Varga says you’d probably get better results with prescription sleep medicines like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata, but if you change your habits, you might not even need those.

“Even when it’s this classic, psychophysiological sleep-onset insomnia, there’s a role for medicines but there’s as much or more of a role for behavioral therapy,” he says. “There’s a lot of things that people do that are counterproductive to them getting to sleep, sometimes things that they’re not even aware of.”

So how bad are you making things for yourself? Take our sleep quiz below.

How much do you suck at sleeping?

Which of these things do you do just before bed? (Check all that apply.)

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How much do you suck at sleeping?

Are you usually tired when you crawl into bed?

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How much do you suck at sleeping?

Do you usually go to bed at the same time every day?

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How much do you suck at sleeping?

Do you usually wake up at the same time every day?

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How much do you suck at sleeping?

How many times do you glance at the clock before passing out?

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How much do you suck at sleeping?

If you can’t fall asleep, do you just lie there, equal parts pissed and defeated?

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How much do you suck at sleeping?

If you couldn’t sleep the night before, do you usually take a nap?

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How much do you suck at sleeping?

Do you typically rely on booze to help you fall asleep?

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You’re a sleeping pro! May you always have sweet dreams while you get your full night’s rest.

Not bad, but there’s room to improve your sleeping habits. Here are some tips to help you get a better night’s rest:

You don’t have the best sleep habits. Honestly, you kind of suck at sleeping. Here are some tips for getting a better night’s rest:

  • Eating, working out, and using devices with backlit screens can keep you from feeling sleepy. Just try doing nothing (we know, it's almost impossible, but TRY), or pull out an old-fashioned analog activity, especially in the 30 to 60 minutes before bed.
  • Take note of when you’re actually going to bed and waking up. Don’t push yourself way past the point of tired or it can backfire and you’ll feel more wired. You could be priming yourself for failure.
  • Too much variance in your bedtime makes it harder for you to fall asleep. Try not to deviate more than 30 minutes earlier or later, including on the weekends. (This will take serious discipline and possibly less rosé.)
  • If you sleep poorly, it’s a given that you’ll be tempted to hit snooze in the morning. But waking up at the same time every day is key to keeping the same bedtime, which feeds the entire process.
  • Turn your clock around or cover it so you don’t obsess over it. And definitely don’t look at the clock if you can’t fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night.
  • If you don’t nod off in what feels like ten or 15 minutes, get out of bed and leave the room (that is, of course, if you have more than one room). Grab a book and head to the couch or a comfy chair. When you’re tired, go back to bed. Repeat until you arrive in dreamland.
  • If you nap, you might not feel tired at bedtime. Enter vicious cycle.
  • Alcohol does work as a sleep aid, but sadly it won’t give you the quality of sleep you really need to take on the world.

If you scored on the lower end, a sleep makeover is probably in order. If addressing these issues doesn’t give you relief (or if you have awesome sleep habits but still toss and turn), then it’s time to call a doctor.

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