According to the National Sleep Foundation, 19.5% of all Americans suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, which can be caused by insomnia. Many of these same Americans cannot easily afford to see a doctor or take prescription medication for their insomnia. But what about melatonin, an over the counter synthetic hormone, as a low-cost treatment for insomnia? Melatonin can help some insomniacs, but not all insomniacs. This is because of the complex nature of insomnia.
Causes of Insomnia
Insomnia is often a symptom of a much more chronic condition, or a variety of them, rather than a condition in and of itself. For example, many people who suffer from major depression have insomnia or its opposite, hypsomnia (sleeping too much.) Insomnia is a common symptom of menopause, heartburn because of physical pain when lying down and anxiety.
Diet, stress and noise also play parts in getting to sleep and staying to sleep. One of the reasons many homeless people become alcoholics or drug addicts is because they are trying to knock themselves out enough to get some sleep, even when lying on a concrete sidewalk. There are also other issues, but that is one.
Lack of sleep can be due to physical pain keeping you awake combined with worry combined with a poor diet. Unless those issues are addressed, taking melatonin is only a temporary placebo at best.
Melatonin is often taken by the sleepy because promising reports came out about melatonin helping to eliminate jet lag. The Mayo Clinic even gives melatonin the grade of “A” when it comes to treating jet lag. Over the counter melatonin mimics the melatonin secreted by your pineal gland. Melatonin helps the brain tell the body that it’s time for sleep.
The secret for using melatonin for get lag is to only use it for jet lag. Unfortunately, it seems to build up a tolerance to it. This can lead people to be sorely tempted to start taking melatonin by the handful. This suggests that melatonin is not for long term use.
The Mayo Clinic notes that studies done for insomnia in the elderly were only for “several nights” long and melatonin seemed to help in a majority of those cases. But it is unknown if melatonin can help in the long term.
Unusual Side Effects
Although there haven’t been many long-term studies done on melatonin, there have been two strange ones. These may or may not affect the average sleeper. Isadore Rosenfeld, MD, doctor and bestselling author, noted that melatonin often gave him and his patients incredibly vivid nightmares.
Another usual side effect will only occur to people that are able to lucid dream, or become aware that they are dreaming in the course of the dream. Melatonin can reduce a lucid dreamer’s awareness of “waking up” in a dream.
Melatonin can also enhance the effect of anti-anxiety medications, cold medications or just about any medication that may cause drowsiness. Before taking melatonin, talk to your doctor to be sure the melatonin will not interfere with your essential medications.
National Sleep Foundation. “Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, Health and Safety.” http://www.sleepfoundation.org/alert/excessive-sleepiness-public-health-and-safety-concern
“Dr. Rosenfeld’s Guide to Alternative Medicine.” Isadore Rosenfeld, MD. Fawcett Columbine; 1996.
New Scientist. “What Causes Insomnia?” May 12, 2003. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-causes-insomnia
Mayo Clinic. “Melatonin: Evidence.” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/melatonin/NS_patient-melatonin/DSECTION=evidence