Last summer, I went on a big trip that involved more than 21 hours on planes each way and several more hours of waiting around in airports. When I finally returned home, I found myself feeling incredibly jet lagged for several days. My sleep patterns were all off, and I was wide awake when I should have been dreaming sweet dreams of Drake. But in my never-ending quest to actually get eight hours of sleep a night (what a lofty goal), I’ve spoken with friends about what they take to fall asleep when they’re jet lagged, and besides Ambien and magnesium, I’ve heard a lot about melatonin. To find out if it can actually help, I consulted with two experts.
First of all, what is melatonin? Well, as it turns out, melatonin is actually a hormone that our brains naturally produce, according to Dr. Neil Kline, spokesperson for the American Sleep Association. It’s actually naturally related to sleep — melatonin is involved with our circadian rhythms (our body’s natural clock) and anticipates the onset of darkness each day. Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told me that, at nighttime, our bodies start secreting a little more melatonin from our pineal gland in order to get a good night’s sleep.
Okay, so why do my friends take it? Dr. Dasgupta explained to me that when it comes to dietary supplements, melatonin is one of the most popular out there, since it’s believed to be a sleep aid. But unfortunately, it’s actually not that potent — so while my friends swear up and down that it helps them sleep at night, it doesn’t actually lull them into an immediate slumber. Instead, when you take melatonin as a supplement, it really just helps to adjust your body’s internal clock, which is beneficial for sleep. “When I’m using melatonin for my patients, I’m really not using it to knock them out,” Dr. Dasgupta said.
So, what does melatonin do? If you take melatonin two hours before your desired bedtime, it might be able to help adjust your body’s clock, Dr. Dasgupta explained. So, for example, if you’ve returned from a trip abroad and you want to actually fall asleep at your normal time, taking melatonin a couple of hours beforehand might help you achieve that goal, though it’s not actually a cure-all for an inability to sleep. “It’s not a very potent hypnotic and when we do use it based on evidence-based medicine from the sleep literature, it’s mainly for circadian-rhythm issues,” he said.
How much should I take? Dr. Dasgupta recommends people take one milligram to three milligrams of pharmaceutical-grade melatonin to help with their circadian rhythm (or jet lag) issues. “Lower doses will suit you just fine,” he told me. The National Institutes of Health notes that melatonin might worsen the moods of people with dementia, or cause uncommon side effects, such as drowsiness, nausea, dizziness, or headaches. No significant side effects have been reported in children, but it may interact with certain medications, so it’s always important to check with your doctor before taking it.
But what about insomnia? Unfortunately, taking melatonin as a dietary supplement likely won’t do much for your insomnia, according to Dr. Kline. “There are several studies that do demonstrate efficacy with melatonin, but it still isn’t something that it is universally recommended as a panacea for insomnia,” Dr Kline told me. Instead, if you have insomnia, Dr. Dasgupta says it’s important to get down to the root cause of why you’re suffering from interrupted sleep — for instance, if you have depression, then seek cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. Additionally, Dr. Kline pointed out people tend to see greater benefits from proper sleep-hygiene tactics than from dietary supplements. That includes following regular sleep schedules, avoiding bright lights before bed, staying away from alcohol and caffeine before bedtime, vigorous exercise in the morning, and more.