What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone made by a part of the brain called the pineal gland. Melatonin helps regulate your sleep cycle. It tells your body when it’s time to go to sleep and when it’s time to wake up.

Melatonin is available as a supplement in pill form. There are two types: natural and synthetic (manmade). Natural melatonin is made from the pineal gland of animals. This form could be contaminated with a virus so it is not recommended. The synthetic form of melatonin does not carry this risk. The label on the pill bottle should list the type. If you are not sure, ask a pharmacist or doctor before you take it.

Melatonin is sold over the counter (OTC) in health food stores and drug stores in the United States. Like other dietary supplements, it is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, it is not approved for certain uses. Because of this, its purity, safety, and success cannot be guaranteed.

Path to improved health

Most people take melatonin to help treat sleep disorders. The most common one is insomnia, which is difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. You also can take it to help prevent or treat jet lag. The typical adult dose ranges from 0.3 mg to 5 mg at bedtime. Lower doses often work as well as higher doses.

Read the directions on the label of the pill bottle. These will tell you how much melatonin to take and how often to take it. If you have questions about how to take melatonin, call your doctor or pharmacist. Do not take more than the recommended amount. Taking more melatonin does not make it work quicker or better. Overdosing on any medicine can be dangerous.

Keep a record of all medicines and supplements you take and when you take them. Take this list with you when you go to the doctor. Ask your doctor if it’s okay to take melatonin if:

  • You take other prescription or OTC medicines.
  • You have ongoing health problems.
  • You are pregnant or nursing (it is unclear what effect melatonin can have on an unborn baby or nursing infant).

Store melatonin out of reach and sight of young children. Keep medicines and supplements in a cool, dry place. This helps prevent them from becoming less effective before they expire. Do not store them in bathrooms, which are often hot and humid.

Things to consider

There is little scientific evidence that melatonin has a role in promoting health or treating disease. Melatonin also is not proven to slow down the aging process or prolong your life.

Some people who have taken melatonin have reported side effects. These include:

  • drowsiness
  • headache
  • a “heavy-head” feeling
  • nausea
  • feeling hungover
  • depression.

Further study is needed to find out more about melatonin’s side effects, especially the delayed or long-term effects. It is unknown if melatonin causes problems when taken with other medicines. It also is unknown if melatonin affects people who have certain diseases and conditions.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if I should take melatonin supplements?
  • Is it best to take melatonin in the short-term or long-term?
  • Is it more or less safe to take melatonin than other OTC or prescription medicines?
  • Is melatonin safe for children to take?