RECIPES & NUTRITION

This is Why Melatonin Doesn’t Help Everyone Sleep

by
Tiffany Lester, MD
Doctor
December 13, 2016

I hear from patients all the time who have tried melatonin to help with their insomnia only to find that it ended up making them feel even worse than they do when they can’t get enough sleep.

I am constantly being asked “How much melatonin should I take to sleep ?” and “Why doesn’t melatonin work for me?” There are plenty of reasons why this sleep -associated hormone might not be working for you, but some of the most common are that you may not need to be supplementing with it and you may be taking it incorrectly.

What is melatonin exactly? What is it used for?

It’s important to understand that melatonin isn’t just a sleeping pill that will work for everybody. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at what melatonin is and the way it works.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland—a pea-sized gland in the middle of our brain. Its purpose is to regulate our circadian rhythm, helping our body to fall in line with the natural dark/light cycles of the sun. When the sun goes down, our pineal gland gets turned on by the suprachiasmatic nucleus located in the hypothalamus. Once stimulated, melatonin levels rise quickly to make you sleepy.

However, if you are not in a dimly lit environment, the brain is tricked into thinking it is still daytime. That’s why you don’t get sleepy when you’re on your tablet or watching TV. The blue light emitted from electronic devices suppresses our natural production of melatonin. So even if we know we are tired and need to go to sleep, our brain is getting the opposite message from our surroundings.

Millions of people turn to supplemental melatonin to help them avoid another sleepless night, and while it’s known to be a natural sleep aid, melatonin may not work for everyone.

Why melatonin may not work for you

It’s important to note that while melatonin helps tell the body when it’s time to go to sleep and wake up, it doesn’t actually make you fall asleep. This is why if you’ve had your sleep pattern disrupted, such as when you’ve traveled to another time zone or are working the nightshift at your job, it can help to reset your confused body and brain.

While melatonin has been shown in some studies to work effectively for some sleep problems, others have shown no positive correlation. That’s why it’s important to discuss taking melatonin sleeping pills with your doctor before buying them. You may be wasting your money by inappropriately supplementing for your specific issue and as a result, see no change.

People who would most benefit from melatonin are those needing to adjust their circadian rhythm such as those with jet lag, inconsistent sleep patterns, or overexposure to blue light and/or sunlight. Among individuals 55 and older , treatment with melatonin also seems to be more effective than in those that are younger. This might be due to a few factors including that melatonin levels decline with age , which may exacerbate conditions related to circadian rhythm, such as sleep disorders. However, if you have a sleep problem that is caused by anxiety or another hormonal issue, then melatonin may not work to ease your sleep issues. Read on to find out what other sleep solutions may be.

Is melatonin safe?

Although melatonin is considered a natural sleep aid, it is a hormone and there are potential side effects to be aware of before supplementing. Most people take it with no problems at all, but if you are thinking of trying it, it’s a good idea to be aware of the possible problems that can arise.

  • Morning drowsiness
  • Vivid dreams
  • Small changes in blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

How much melatonin do you need?

Most people overdo it with melatonin by taking upward of 10 milligrams or more prior to bed and then claim it doesn’t work. Taking too much melatonin can actually cause rebound insomnia —either rendering the supplement ineffective or worse, exacerbating your already sleepless nights further.

You only need tiny doses of melatonin to support your natural sleep cycle. As little as 1-3 mg about an hour before you go to bed can boost your melatonin by 20 times. If it still doesn’t work for you, it’s likely your sleep problems have other causes and need further investigation by a doctor.

What should I do if melatonin doesn’t work?

While melatonin can be helpful in some cases to regulate the sleep cycle, supplementing with a pill does not need to be your first line of defense against sleepless nights. For many of our Parsley Health members with sleep issues, establishing a nightly routine which includes dimming the lights, refraining from using screens an hour before bed, and setting the stage for rest actually helps to prepare their mind and body for the onset of sleep.

If melatonin doesn’t work for you, or worse, melatonin is keeping you awake, our doctors and health coaches help provide insight around tools such as meditation , deep breathing, and journaling that can help to manage stress levels prior to hitting the pillow. Studies show mindfulness-based stress reduction practices such as these help to improve the quality, duration, and onset of sleep even in those with diagnosed sleep issues.

Even if you’ve tried meditation, melatonin, and mindfulness without any improvement to your sleep, our team of doctors regularly help our members to dive deeper to find the root cause of sleep disturbances—analyzing things such as hormones, the gut microbiome, and cortisol levels to address any underlying imbalances that may be making you prone to poor sleep.

Looking for more tips for better sleep?

Watch the video below where Dr. Robin Berzin shares her top biohacks to help you get deeper, and better quality sleep.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Optimize your sleeping environment
  • Improve your daily habits
  • Create a bedtime routine
  • Account for hormone spikes
  • Find the perfect supplement

Final Thoughts on Melatonin and Sleep

  • Melatonin is a hormone that is responsible for setting our sleep-wake cycle.
  • Melatonin isn’t a generic sleeping pill that will work for everyone.
  • It’s always a good idea to start off with a very low dose of melatonin and see how you do. As little as 1-3 mg may be enough.
  • If you don’t see success with melatonin, working with a holistic care team to establish better habits and dive deeper into underlying causes of sleep disturbances can help to address long-term improvements in sleep quality.
by
Tiffany Lester, MD
Doctor

Dr. Tiffany Lester is a board-certified Integrative Medicine Physician who has practiced a holistic approach to health for over a decade. She is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where she completed her training in internal medicine. She also graduated from the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona with Dr. Andrew Weil, and has extensive training in functional medicine through the Institute of Functional Medicine. Dr. Lester is also featured as a teacher for the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and regularly contributes to national wellness publications.

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