Should You Really Be Using a Melatonin Diffuser Before Bed?
The United States is one of the (if not the) largest market for melatonin in the world. But this might not come as much of a surprise given that approximately 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health. Still, data from the National Health Statistics Report shows that the percentage of the population using melatonin doubled between 2002 and 2012, and that percentage continues to grow, especially now as the COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc on sleep. And while there are a variety of ways in which you can consume the popular sleep aid — i.e. over-the-counter pills, fruit-flavored gummies — recently, people have been inhaling (yes, inhaling) melatonin. If that has you raising an eyebrow, you're not alone.
For the past few months, melatonin diffusers — aka melatonin vaporizers or melatonin vape pens — have been making their way across social media, popping up in influencers' IG posts and TikToks as the ~secret~ to scoring a great night of sleep. People are seemingly convinced that these vape pens help you fall asleep faster and sleep sounder than melatonin pills or chewables. And melatonin diffuser brands such as Cloudy double down on this claim, saying on their site that all you need to do is take a few puffs or hits of their "modern aromatherapy device" to sink into a restful slumber.
Sounds dreamy enough. But are melatonin diffusers actually legit — and safe? Ahead, everything you need to know about inhaling your way to zzz's before giving one of these gadgets a go yourself. But first...
What Is Melatonin, Again?
"Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain that regulates the body's circadian rhythm and sleep patterns," says Michael Friedman, M.D., an otolaryngologist and sleep medicine expert at Chicago ENT. Quick refresher: your circadian rhythm is your body's 24-hour internal clock that regulates your sleep cycle; it tells you when it's time to sleep and when it's time to wake up. If your circadian rhythm is stable, your brain will naturally secrete higher levels of melatonin as the sun sets in the p.m. and lower levels as the sun rises in the a.m., he explains. But that's not the case for everyone. When your body's internal clock becomes distorted — whether that's because of jet lag, increased stress, sleep anxiety, or even exposure to blue light before bed — you're more likely to struggle to fall asleep, wake up in the middle of the night, or not sleep at all. And that's where melatonin supplements come in.
At its most basic, a melatonin supplement is simply a synthetic form of the hormone, meaning it's created in the lab and then made into a pill, gummy, or even a liquid. And while establishing a healthy, stable bedtime routine (i.e. turning off devices such as TVs and phones a good hour before bed) is essential for scoring sufficient sleep, OTC melatonin can be particularly helpful for people struggling to get quality rest, says Dr. Friedman.
"Melatonin supplements can help successfully facilitate the transition from wakefulness to sleep," he says. "By helping to increase the levels of melatonin naturally being produced in the body, the supplements promote consistent, quality sleep, which is why we recommend it to patients." In other words, adding a little more of the hormone to your system can have somewhat of a sedating effect, which, in turn, can help you drift off to dreamland even if, say, you're body still thinks you're in a different time zone. The goal? To ultimately get your circadian rhythm back on track and start sleeping soundly all by yourself. (See also: Melatonin Skin-Care Products That Work While You Sleep)
It's worth noting that melatonin supplements — like all dietary supplements, as well as melatonin diffusers — aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But taking OTC melatonin over the short-term is considered "generally safe," according to the Mayo Clinic. (More research is needed to determine the effects, if any, over the long-term.) Still, you should definitely talk to your doctor before taking anything — melatonin included.
As for vaporized melatonin, such as that delivered by melatonin diffusers? Well, folks, that's a whole different ball game.
What Is a Melatonin Diffuser, Exactly?
Melatonin diffusers are fairly new to the world of sleep aids, and they're all a bit different; generally, they house a liquid (containing melatonin) that turns to a mist or vapor when inhaled. For example, Inhale Health's Melatonin Lavender Dream Inhaler (But It, $20, inhalehealth.com) heats up to a temperature necessary to transform the liquid formula into an inhalable vapor, according to the company's website.
Sound familiar? That's because the delivery mechanism in a melatonin diffuser is, in fact, quite similar to any old e-cigarette or Juul. Now, to be fair, inhaling melatonin is not the same as vaping an e-cigarette, which contains nicotine, propylene glycol, flavorings, and other chemicals. In fact, melatonin diffuser brands Cloudy and Inhale Health both emphasize on their sites that their pens include melatonin as well as a handful of other fairly-safe ingredients. Cloudy's device (Buy It, $20, trycloudy.com), for example, includes just melatonin, lavender extract, chamomile extract, grape extract, L-Theanine (a natural de-stressor), propylene glycol (a thickening agent or liquid), and vegetable glycerin (a syrupy like liquid).
The biggest selling-point of melatonin diffusers is that you can feel their effects almost immediately. The idea is that when concentrated melatonin is inhaled, it's instantly absorbed in your lungs and then quickly enters the bloodstream. On the other hand, when a melatonin tablet is ingested, it has to first be metabolized or broken down by the liver — which is a timelier process and, thus, why experts recommend taking it up to two hours before bedtime, according to an article from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. (In the meantime, you could also try unwinding with a calming yoga flow.)
If taken right as you hit the hay, melatonin tablets or gummies can further mess up your sleep patterns as it takes several hours for it to actually work, explains Dr. Friedman. So, if you take it as you're going to bed around 10 p.m., you may ultimately end up boosting your melatonin production around midnight while you sleep, thereby making it harder for you to wake up in the a.m. Conversely, melatonin diffusers theoretically make the risk of morning grogginess a thing of the past by delivering those calming, sleepy effects almost instantly. The keyword here being "theoretically" as so much is still TBD about these popular pens.
Are Melatonin Diffusers Safe to Use?
You might want to listen to what an expert has to say about melatonin diffuser safety before making any decisions.
"Vaping anything [often] has inherent negative effects," says Dr. Friedman. Sure, most melatonin diffusers don't contain drugs (such as addictive nicotine) or the harmful ingredients lurking in e-cigarettes (think: vitamin E acetate, a common additive in vaping products that's been linked to lung disease). But vaporizers in general have only recently become the subject of studies — none of which have focused on melatonin diffusers. (Related: How to Use Sleep Meditation to Fight Insomnia)
Not to mention, inhaling anything into your lungs that's not oxygen can come with risks. (Unless you're using, say, a nebulizer or legit inhaler for medical reasons such as asthma.) When you take a deep breath of the vaporized mixture — even if it's containing what Inhale Health says are "pharmaceutical-grade ingredients" — you're coating your lungs with a mist whose legitimacy, safety, and efficacy are still TBD. The long-term health effects of inhaling vapor, regardless of its contents, are not yet well understood, notes Dr. Friedman — and that's the real problem.(It's worth noting, too, that this is a time when your lung health is of the utmost importance. See: Does Vaping Increase Your COVID Risk?)
Another issue? The fact that these devices are being called and branded as "diffusers" and "aromatherapy devices" vs. "pens" or "vapes," thereby potentially creating a health halo of sorts. At this point, it's well-established that vaping is dangerous. And while melatonin diffusers use pretty much the same mechanisms as vape pens, this name can make them seem more like a healthy equivalent to aromatherapy diffusing and less like vaping. (See also: What Is Popcorn Lung, and Can You Get It from Vaping?)
"There is zero scientific data available on vaping melatonin," he continues. "So, from a medical standpoint, it's not something I would recommend."
Bottom line? Ingesting melatonin might still be the safest and most effective way to catch some shut-eye according to the experts, but, as with all supplements, it's not necessarily the answer for everyone who's struggling with sleep. If you can't seem to close your eyes without having to count sheep, chat with your doctor to determine the best way for you to get back into the zzzzone.
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