We all know skimping on sleep is a big no-no for a healthy lifestyle, but is there any point in popping 'the sleep hormone' for better zzz's?
If you suffer from sleepless nights, you've probably tried every remedy in the book: hot tubs, a 'no electronics in the bedroom' rule, a cooler sleeping space. But what about melatonin supplements? They must be better than sleeping pills if your body already makes the hormone naturally, right? Well, kind of.
When the sun starts to set, you produce the hormone melatonin, which tells your body it's time to go to bed, says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., a sleep expert and medical director of the sleep medicine center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, VA.
But while adding a little more melatonin to your system in pill form could have somewhat of a sedating effect, the benefits may not be as big as you'd hope: Melatonin won't necessarily make for more quality sleep, says Winter. It may just make you—well—sleepy. (Here's what you should REALLY eat for better sleep.)
Another problem: Take it every night, and the med might lose its effectiveness, says Winter. Over time, a late night dose could push your circadian rhythm later and later. "You trick your brain into thinking the sun is going down when you're going to bed—not when the sun is actually going down," says Winter. This might contribute to more zzz problems down the line (like not being able to doze off until later in the night).
"If you're taking melatonin every night, I would ask, 'why?'," says Winter. (See: 6 Weird Reasons You're Still Awake.)
After all, the best ways to use the supplement aren't for a better snooze, but to keep your internal body clock—your circadian rhythm—in check. If you're jet lagged or doing some shift work, melatonin could help you adjust, Winter says. Here's an example: If you're headed east (which is tougher on your body than flying west), taking melatonin a few nights before your trip could help you fight the time change. "You can convince yourself the sun is going down before it really is," says Winter. (Check out these 8 Energy Tips from Night Shift Workers.)
No matter what, though, stick to 3 milligrams per dose. More isn't better: "You're not getting any more quality sleep if you take more; you're just using it for sedation purposes."
And before turning to the bottle, consider some natural lifestyle tweaks, says Winter. Exercising and exposing yourself to bright light during the day (and soft dim lighting at night) can both enhance your own melatonin production without having to put a pill in your mouth, he says. We also suggest these 7 Yoga Stretches to Help You Fall Asleep Fast.