By Olivia Smith
Louis Peitzman had never once blacked out — until he started taking Ambien. The 26-year-old would take the sedative to help him sleep at night, but it frequently put holes in his memory.
"Usually I would go to sleep," Peitzman said, "but if something distracted me and I was in that half-way state then it was easy to do something regrettable."
Peitzman would get in bed, and wake up the next morning to find that he had unknowingly gorged on junk food or indulged in some online shopping during the middle of the night. Eventually he grew tired of the side effects and decided to try something else.
"Melatonin was recommended to me by my doctor as one of the nonprescription, natural ways to sleep," Peitzman said.
A top-selling natural sleep aid, melatonin has been sold over-the-counter since the 1990s. But is it safe to take regularly or long-term?
Daylight contains lots of blue light, which tells the body's internal clock that it's time to be awake. As day turns to night and the light outside dims, the brain naturally starts producing the hormone melatonin, which is released into the blood, and tells the body that it's time to sleep. Melatonin levels peak in the middle of the night and then gradually fall as morning approaches.
However, day-to-day interruptions — like jetlag, irregular work schedules and the artificial blue light emitted from our smartphones and TVs — can disrupt melatonin production and alter our sleep cycle, causing fatigue or exacerbating existing sleep disorders.
"As a society, we are melatonin-suppressed," said Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a sleep specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine.
People who have trouble sleeping may try to restore their normal sleep cycle by taking melatonin supplements, which are synthetic but otherwise identical to the natural melatonin produced by your brain's pineal gland. However, there is currently very little evidence that melatonin use has substantial effects on your sleep cycle.
Research has shown that melatonin can be helpful for counteracting jetlag, or for helping shift workers who have irregular sleeping schedules. But most experts agree that the benefits of melatonin on sleep have been minimal — and that much more research is needed. The Federal Drug Administration does not currently regulate melatonin because it is labeled as a dietary supplement.
"Melatonin is a hormone whose complex effects and long-term safety have yet to be fully delineated," said Andrew Weil, MD, the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
However, doctors tend to agree that melatonin is safe for most people when taken as directed. It's important to note that the supplements carry mild side effects — including nightmares, headaches and drowsiness. In addition, melatonin shouldn't be seen as a cure for long-term insomnia, said Weil.
"People are naturally attracted to the idea of a quick fix for health issues including insomnia," Weil said, "rather than attending to underlying issues that may be contributing to the problem."
Remember, said Michael Breus, Ph.D., a sleep expert and author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan, melatonin is a sleep regulator, not a sleep initiator. Breus said most people treat melatonin as a sleeping pill, taking it five minutes before going to bed, when it should be taken at least 90 minutes beforehand.
"It gets your body ready for bed, but it doesn't make you sleep," Breus said.
Melatonin is not recommended for children, for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and for certain other groups of people — be sure to talk to your doctor before taking the supplement.
For most people, the most effective way to ensure a sound night's sleep is to pay more attention to your nighttime routine. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night — and make getting your rest a priority. Set up and stick to a regular sleep schedule — these sleep-better tips can help you wind down at the end of the day. Tracking your sleep can also help you customize your sleep schedule, and see what may be interfering with your rest.
If you're still feeling fatigued, or you suspect that you may have a sleeping disorder, talk to your doctor — he or she can help you determine the cause of your problem, and discuss the best treatment options to get you back on track.
Published June 17, 2013.
Olivia Smith is a reporter for NY1 where she covers local news in New York City. She is also a contributor to health and business websites. She has held a CNN Fellowship and a German-American Fulbright grant. She earned her master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.