If you get sleepy at the same time every night and wake up feeling bright and refreshed, thank melatonin. The natural hormone, produced by the brain’s pineal gland, is triggered by darkness. When the sun goes down or the lights are switched off, the gland kicks into gear, melatonin levels rise, and the body reacts by going into a more restful state. When the sun rises or a light is switched on, melatonin production comes to a halt.
That’s why, if you’re not getting enough quality z’s, it might be the result of a disruption in your daytime-nighttime schedule, such as traveling at odd hours or a late-night exposure to bright lights.
Melatonin supplements can help regulate things when your internal timepiece goes haywire. Before partaking, though, understand that “melatonin is a sleep regulator, not a sleep initiator,” says Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Meaning, it will tell your body clock it is nighttime, but it will not increase the drive for sleep. So, if you have jet lag or are a shift worker, it may be an option, but if you have insomnia, it is less likely to help.”
Because the supplement is not FDA-regulated, research the quality of the manufacturer, says Breus. (A first step is to check whether the company meets standard pharmaceutical guidelines for a sterile environment.) You should also opt for synthetic versions of the supplement, since natural melatonin is harvested from animal pineal glands, which raises concerns about purity.
Finally, always consult your healthcare provider if you want to try melatonin. Doctors can recommend the proper dosage and determine whether it will interact with other medications you’re taking.
“And, as with any sleep aid,” Breus notes, “if you need it for longer than about a month, it’s best to see a sleep specialist and try to determine the underlying need for the melatonin.”