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Melatonin Supplements May Help but Aren’t a Cure for Sleep Issues

A jar with sleeping pills and a glass of water placed on bedside table near sleeping female

A growing number of U.S. adults are taking melatonin supplements to get a better night’s sleep. Supplements may be helpful, but it depends on why you need it and when you take it, says UH sleep specialist Eric Yeh, MD.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Dr. Yeh says many people overuse melatonin supplements, take them for the wrong reasons or use them to mask an underlying sleep disorder.

“It’s not heavily regulated, so the content of supplements can vary quite a bit from product to product,” Dr. Yeh says. “Dosages are different and people are grabbing whatever they can.”

What melatonin is and isn’t

Melatonin is not a remedy for insomnia, Dr. Yeh says.

It’s recommended for jet lag and circadian rhythm disorders – problems with the sleep-wake cycle.

Your body produces about a half-milligram a day of melatonin. It doesn’t make you fall asleep like a sleeping pill. It signals your body it’s time to wind down and go to sleep.

“It’s regulated by light,” Dr. Yeh says. “Melatonin will always come out, but if there are lights, melatonin will actually be inhibited.”

Timing, dosage is everything

You should take melatonin a couple hours or more before bedtime. And you shouldn’t take any more than 5 milligrams, Dr. Yeh says.

Some people with sleep problems are taking many times that amount.

Reaching for a melatonin supplement is not the answer if you’re tossing and turning at 2 a.m.

“Timing is the most important issue,” Dr. Yeh says. “Mark it as the beginning of your wind down. Give melatonin time to work, and at the same time, start the winding down process.”

That means clicking off phones and tablets, lowering or turning off lights, avoiding stress and putting yourself in a quiet zone.

“Naturally your body should be able to go to sleep,” Dr Yeh says. “Melatonin may provide a little bit of help, but behaviorally and psychologically, there are the things people need to work on.”

Melatonin won’t fix what’s broken

Millions of Americans don’t get enough sleep. Sometimes it’s a lifestyle issue, sometimes it’s stress and sometimes it’s an underlying medical issue.

“Sleep is a very complex phenomenon,” Dr Yeh says. “Melatonin could mask other issues, whether it be sleep apnea, narcolepsy or restless leg syndrome.”

Emotions can also wreak havoc with sleep.

“There are so many things that affect how we go to sleep, how well we sleep and how we wake up,” Dr. Yeh says. “When people have sleep problems, it’s highly recommended they talk to one of us so they can have an examination and work up to see if something else is happening.”


Dr. Yeh says melatonin supplements are generally safe if taken properly.

Long-term use is not recommended, and it’s unknown whether taking too much melatonin for too long carries any risks.

Some people who depend on supplements long term may develop a psychological addiction, Dr. Yeh says.

Sleep problems no doubt spiked during the pandemic, he says, as daily routines were thrown out of synch. Rebuilding a daily routine, including regular exercise and fixed meal times and bed times, will help you sleep better.

“Daytime routine is very important. What you do during the day effects how you go to sleep and how well you sleep at night.”

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