Can Melatonin Really Help You Sleep Better?

Does this supplement help you get more ZZZ's
sleeping pills on bedside table with clock and glass of water

If you have insomnia, counting sheep won’t help you fall asleep or stay asleep. With so many over-the-counter sleep aids, which is best? If you’re among the many people wondering if melatonin can help you sleep more solidly, it’s important to understand how this popular supplement works. 

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This light-sensitive hormone, produced by your brain’s pineal gland, partially controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle. We asked sleep specialist Michelle Drerup, MD, about melatonin and insomnia. 

How many people suffer from insomnia?

If you’re experiencing insomnia lately, it turns out you’re not alone. Insomnia affects millions of people. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that:

  • 30% of adults experience brief periods of insomnia.
  • 15 to 20% have insomnia for less than three months.
  • 10% have chronic insomnia (three times a week for over three months) that affects how their ability to function during the daytime.

How does melatonin work for insomnia?

“Scientists are just beginning to understand how well melatonin supplements work for different sleep problems, and when and how much you should take,” says Dr. Drerup. Research is ongoing. But we do know that taking melatonin for short periods of time — meaning days or weeks — is better than a placebo for sleep onset insomnia, or difficulty initially falling asleep.

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Melatonin supplements may improve your sleep if you have disrupted circadian rhythms (from jet lag or working the night shift, for example). Melatonin can also be helpful if you are more of a “night owl” and feel more productive and alert in the evening/night.

How much melatonin do you need?

Melatonin isn’t one of those one-size-fits-all types of things. For melatonin to be helpful, it’s important to tailor your dose, how you take it and the time of day to your specific sleep problem. “Taking it at the ‘wrong’ time of day may actually make your sleep disorder worse,” warns Dr. Drerup.

It’s best to start with very low doses of melatonin. “Keep the dose close to the amount that your body normally produces. That’s less than  0.3 mg per day,” she advises. “You should only use the lowest amount possible to achieve the desired effect.”

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When it comes to melatonin, it’s best not to go it alone. Melatonin is sold over-the-counter, but Dr. Drerup recommends working with your primary care doctor or a sleep specialist to find the safest and most effective dose for you. The right dose should produce restful sleep, with no daytime irritability or fatigue.

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