What is Melatonin, and How Does It Work?


Rumor has it that melatonin will help you get some quality sleep. Is this true, or is there more to it?


Melatonin helps to control your daily sleep-wake cycles. But what really is it, and how does it work? For starters, melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. It helps regulate other hormones and maintains the body’s circadian rhythm, which is an internal 24-hour clock. The circadian rhythm plays a critical role in when we fall asleep and when we wake up.

How is melatonin produced naturally?

The pineal gland, where melatonin comes from, is pea-sized and located just above the middle of the brain. When it’s light and bright, the pineal gland is inactive, and the production of melatonin drops. When it’s dark, the pineal gland is active, and your body produces melatonin. As production of melatonin levels rise, you begin to get sleepy. Being exposed to bright lights in the evening can disrupt melatonin cycles, as well as being exposed to not enough light during the day.

It’s important to work with melatonin, instead of against it. Because melatonin levels rise about two hours before bedtime, you should manipulate conditions for the melatonin to do its job properly. Keep the lights down low and avoid using your phone and laptop up close and personal to your face during those hours. If you’re one to watch TV before bed, make sure the brightness is dimmed, and you are at least six feet away from the screen.

How safe is melatonin?

Melatonin can be harmful to your sleep if taken inappropriately. Believe it or not, synthetic melatonin has been available as a sleep aid for decades; however, it’s almost completely unregulated by the FDA. This means that these types of supplements are always a bit of a gamble, because the FDA isn’t keeping the closest eye on how they’re produced. Many commercial products for melatonin are offered at dosages that cause melatonin levels in the blood to rise to much higher levels than naturally produced in the body. Taking a typical dose of 1-3 mg of melatonin can elevate your blood melatonin levels up to 20 times more than normal.

How should I take melatonin, and does it always work?

Melatonin is meant to help reset the body’s internal clock, in which we’ve mentioned earlier, so the right time to take melatonin as a supplement is on a short-term basis. For example, a short-term basis could include a time when you’re experiencing insomnia, want to overcome jetlag, or need to get to bed earlier to wake up at an earlier time, such as for work or class. When it comes to dosage, less is more, so taking 0.3-1 mg a couple of hours before bedtime is optimal.

Melatonin will not work if you can’t sleep due to stress, depression, or anxiety. Those problems are not associated with the production of melatonin. If you’ve taken melatonin for more than two weeks, chances are your sleep issues are not related to your melatonin levels. It can also interfere with how your body processes other drugs, so it’s important to speak with your doctor before purchasing it OTC.