Melatonin, or N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, is a naturally occurring hormone, that is used by an increasing number of people as a sleep aid. Taking melatonin nightly to aid sleep can have adverse effects: increased tolerance, dependency, failure to address underlying sleep problems and altered sleep patterns. Many people take melatonin by itself or in combination with other ingredients in such sleep aids as Alteril. Melatonin is used for a variety of sleeping problems: to help people get to sleep, stay asleep and sleep better. Melatonin is available over the counter in the US, but in other countries by prescription only. Since it is available over the counter without a prescription, the use of melatonin has increased dramatically.
The problems that arise with melatonin come from the fact that melatonin is a hormone already produced by the human body. People who take melatonin often claim that their body does not produce melatonin or enough melatonin to sleep adequately. However, the only way to verify if the body is indeed producing sufficient melatonin is with a blood test. Being available without a prescription, few people trouble themselves to have blood work done before jumping on the melatonin bandwagon. All too often the underlying causes for the melatonin depletion are not examined thoroughly. Diet, exercise, stress, alcohol consumption, other prescription and non-prescription medications, schedules, other health issues; all these affect sleep. Since it’s easier to take a pill than to search out and address the underlying sleep problems. Melatonin becomes a band-aid.
The other, more alarming issues with melatonin is that it can create a need for itself, a dependency. Melatonin is a hormone. Hormone are regulators of body systems. When melatonin is brought into the body artificially, the brain signals the body to produce less melatonin naturally. The body’s natural melatonin production is inhibited. This produces further depletion and increases the need for melatonin supplements.
Of the people I know who take melatonin (and there are quite a few), several have reported needing increasing levels of melatonin to produce the same sleep results. Further, being sold over the counter and without a doctor’s supervision, it’s much easier for melatonin users to ‘self-medicate’. That is, it’s easy with a sleep aid like melatonin, that is purported to be ‘safe’, to take too much. It’s the old trick we humans have of thinking, ‘if one makes me sleep better, how good will I sleep with two? Three?…”
Advocates of melatonin are quick to point out that it’s ‘not addictive’. While melatonin is not ‘addictive’ in itself, it the body develops and tolerance for melatonin and an increased dependency. My question is, does it matter if melatonin is ‘addictive’ if increased levels are necessary to achieve proper sleep? Isn’t tolerance and dependence functionally the same as addiction?
I’ve tried melatonin as have several of my adult children. None of us felt that our sleep was refreshing. We felt tired and sluggish. In my case, it’s a good thing I quit taking melatonin because it turns out that I have severe sleep apnea. Had I relied on a sleep pill, I may never have had a sleep study and discovered the benefit from my CPAP. I’m not telling you to give up melatonin if you are taking it for sleep. I’m not saying, necessarily that you don’t need melatonin. I’m simply advising that you proceed with caution and be sure to explore other possible health issues and reasons for your sleep problems.