What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone made by a part of the brain called the pineal (say: "pin-ee-all") gland. Melatonin may help our bodies know when it's time to go to sleep and when it's time to wake up.
Melatonin supplements (in pill form) are also available. Two types of melatonin may be used in these pills: natural and synthetic (man-made). Natural melatonin is made from the pineal gland of animals. This form could be contaminated with a virus and is therefore not recommended. The synthetic form of melatonin does not carry this risk. If you are not sure if your melatonin is natural or synthetic, ask your doctor or pharmacist before taking it.
How is melatonin used?
Melatonin can be used to treat insomnia (difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep) or other sleep disorders. It can also be taken to prevent jet lag. Beyond that, there is little scientific evidence that melatonin has a role in promoting health or treating disease.
Does melatonin have side effects?
Some people who have taken melatonin have reported sleepiness, headache, a "heavy-head" feeling, stomach discomfort, depression or feeling hung-over. Further study is needed to find out more about melatonin's side effects, especially delayed or long-term effects. For example, we don't know if melatonin causes problems when taken with other medicines. We also don't know how melatonin may affect diseases and other medical conditions.
Does melatonin require a doctor's prescription?
No. Melatonin is sold without a prescription in health food stores and drug stores in the United States. However, melatonin products are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Since melatonin products are not regulated by a government agency, their purity, safety and effectiveness can't be guaranteed.
Should I take melatonin for sleep problems or jet lag?
It might be better not to take melatonin until we know more about it. If you decide to try it, talk to your doctor first. Be sure to tell him or her if you have any medical conditions, are taking any other medicine (prescription, over-the-counter or herbal) and if you are pregnant or nursing. It is unclear what effect melatonin can have on an unborn baby or nursing infant.
Does melatonin have any effect on aging?
No. Despite claims that have been made in magazines and newspapers, no scientific studies have shown that melatonin can slow down the aging process or prolong your life.
Funding and support for this material have been provided by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff