Risks and benefits of using melatonin for a good night’s sleep.

Happy Halloween (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Happy Halloween (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Sleep is important for mind, body, and mood. We spend roughly a third of our lives sleeping.

A poll conducted by the University of Michigan in 2017 showed nearly half of the adults between ages 65 and 80 said they often have trouble sleeping. Many of these individuals regularly seek sleep aids.

Insufficient sleep (insomnia) has been linked to an increased risk of falls, collisions, cognitive decline, and dementia. It can increase your risk of cardiovascular problems, obesity, and even cancer. It can drain your energy and affect your work performance and quality of life.

How much sleep do you need? That varies from person to person, but most adults need seven to eight hours a night. Does melatonin help to have a good night’s sleep?

Melatonin is synthesized and secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin levels are regulated by exposure to light. Levels peak around 2 a.m. at concentrations 10 to 100 times daytime levels.

Melatonin regulates the body’s sleep cycle. It plays an important role in initiating and maintaining sleep. Natural melatonin levels slowly drop with age. Some older adults make very small amounts of it or none at all.

Melatonin balance may be disrupted if you are in a different time zone or doing shift work. Clinical trials suggest melatonin can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, increase total sleep time and improve quality of sleep.

One study found a relatively low dose of melatonin (0.3 mg) was enough to improve nighttime sleep in older adults without drowsiness the next day. Studies have shown melatonin increases sleep time by 12.8 minutes and increased sleep efficiency by about three per cent. Is this good enough? The clinical significance of this is unclear. There is no consensus among experts regarding the use and benefits of melatonin for insomnia.

In spite of that in the U.S., sales have increased by more than 500 per cent between 2003 and 2014, and where melatonin is the second most popular natural product used by children.

Very small amounts of it are found in foods such as meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. You can also buy it as a supplement. Melatonin supplements generally have fewer side effects than do many prescription sleep drugs. They do not produce dependence or hangover effect.

Side effects of melatonin are few but may include daytime sleepiness and tiredness on waking. Headaches, nausea and dizziness also can occur. You should avoid activities that require alertness, such as driving, for five hours after taking melatonin. These pills can also undermine the effectiveness of blood pressure drugs and diabetes medication. Do not start taking melatonin without consulting your doctor. Do not use melatonin if you have an autoimmune disease.

If you do decide to take melatonin, choose commercial supplements produced in a lab. Melatonin supplements made from animal sources may contain contaminants. Melatonin should only be taken in its man-made form (myhealth.alberta.ca).

Know what you are buying. Make sure to look for the “USP verified” label. This means product is accurately labeled and free of harmful substances (Consumer Reports February 18, 2017).

People commonly use melatonin for sleep disorders, such as insomnia and jet lag. Evidence that melatonin supplements can treat sleep disorders is shaky, and over-the-counter melatonin has been banned for years in the United Kingdom, European Union, Japan, and Australia.

Melatonin is the only human hormone available in Canada without a prescription.

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