When we think about the sleep hormone melatonin, it’s often in relation to getting more sleep or better sleep. But making sure you take the right dose can be tricky. Take too little, and you don’t see a difference; take too much, and you could experience some side effects, including headaches.
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To better understand if melatonin can really induce headaches and how you can avoid this, we spoke to sleep specialist Marri Horvat, MD, MS.
Why does melatonin cause headaches?
The actual reason that melatonin seems to trigger headaches isn’t directly known, says Dr. Horvat, but there are some possibilities that explain the connection.
Lack of regulation
Like a lot of supplements available over-the-counter, the melatonin that you buy off the shelf at your local drugstore isn’t well-regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Because it’s considered a dietary supplement and there’s less strict regulation, the actual amount of melatonin can vary from product to product with no way of knowing that actual content,” explains Dr. Horvat.
While this means the actual melatonin content could be below what a product claims, it also means it could be well above what the label claims, and that could lead to side effects. A 2017 study from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine showed melatonin content found across 31 supplements ranged from 83% less than advertised to a whopping 478% more than advertised.
Additionally, Dr. Horvat says there could be other supplements like serotonin or valerian mixed in, which could prompt a reaction.
Disrupted sleep cycle
Ironically, it could be that headaches triggered by melatonin could be due to a disrupted sleep cycle. “By using melatonin, you could be changing your natural sleep-wake cycle,” notes Dr. Horvat, “and that itself can induce headaches.”
Can melatonin treat migraines?
Yes, while melatonin can potentially trigger headaches, it’s also used to treat them. “Studies have shown that certain amounts of melatonin were effective in treating migraines even though it’s unclear if that has to do with the melatonin itself or improved sleep,” she says.
That said, it shouldn’t be considered a first-line treatment for migraines or other headaches. “You should contact your healthcare provider first to pinpoint the reason you’re having these headaches,” Dr. Horvat adds. “It could also mean that you have another condition that needs simultaneous treatment.”
What else can help aid sleep when you have headaches?
Dr. Horvat reiterates that it’s best to consult with your doctor before taking any supplement or over-the-counter solution for sleep aids or long-term headache treatment. “If it’s a headache that doesn’t happen frequently, trying something like Tylenol® or ibuprofen is fine, depending on your health situation,” she says.
But if headaches are disrupting your sleep, disrupting your ability to function during the day or occurring at least three times a week, there are other options. “We can start daily medications that can relieve headache and some even aid sleep as a side effect,” Dr. Horvat adds, “but it depends on the type of migraine and how often it happens.”
By consulting with your doctor and any recommended specialist, it’ll be easier to find the treatment that’s right for you without subjecting you to unnecessary risks and side effects.