Updated February 24, 2015.
By Olivia Smith
As day turns to night and the light outside dims, most people start to feel drowsy. But have you ever wondered why? It’s the result of a hormone called melatonin, which the body begins to produce as darkness falls. Melatonin releases into the blood, telling the body that it’s time to sleep. Our bodies’ melatonin levels peak in the middle of the night, then gradually fall as morning approaches, readying us to wake for the day.
Daylight contains a strong element of blue light, which tells your internal clock that it’s time to be up and about. That’s why the artificial blue light emitted from our smartphones and TVs can disrupt melatonin production and alter your sleep cycle, resulting in fatigue or exacerbating existing sleep disorders. Irregular work schedules and frequent travel (which causes jetlag) are culprits, too, and have even been linked to an increased risk of more serious conditions, like type 2 diabetes.
"As a society, we are melatonin-suppressed,” says Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson.
People who have trouble sleeping may try to restore their normal sleep cycle by taking melatonin supplements. Melatonin supplements are synthetic versions of the natural melatonin produced in the brain’s pineal gland. This pinecone-shaped gland, centrally located in the brain, is crucial to the body’s sleep/wake cycles, otherwise known as circadian rhythms.
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 for sleep are limited — and that more research is needed.
“Melatonin is a hormone whose complex effects and long-term safety have yet to be fully delineated,” says Andrew Weil, MD, the founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
Melatonin supplements are currently considered dietary supplements by the US Food & Drug Administration, which means, among other things, that there is less testing and oversight to ensure that what you buy over the counter consistently contains the exact ingredients listed on the label — no more, no less.
However, doctors tend to agree that melatonin is safe for most people when taken as directed. It’s important to note that melatonin supplements have mild side effects — including nightmares, headaches and drowsiness. In addition, melatonin shouldn’t be seen as a cure for long-term insomnia, says Weil.
“People are naturally attracted to the idea of a quick fix for health issues, including insomnia, rather than attending to underlying issues that may be contributing to the problem,” Weil adds.
According to Michael Breus, PhD, author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, 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 ahead of time. Melatonin is a sleep regulator, not a sleep initiator, he says, adding, “It gets your body ready for bed, but it doesn’t make you sleep.”
Melatonin isn’t 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 this supplement.
For most people, an effective way to ensure a sound night’s sleep is to pay more attention to your nighttime routine. Set up and stick to a regular sleep schedule. Tracking your sleep will help you customize your sleep schedule, and see what may be interfering with your rest. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night — and make getting rest a priority. Try our tips to help you wind down at the end of the day.
For those who think screen time may be the bandit behind their stolen sleep, simple modifications can be helpful. According to a 2013 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, setting your phone or tablet to a dim or medium setting, as well as holding it at least 14 inches from your face may be helpful. Also, consider taking the TV out of your bedroom. Findings out of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA, suggest that shacking up with a TV can contribute to sleep deprivation, not to mention obesity and metabolic dysfunction.
If, after making these changes, you still feeling fatigued, or you suspect that you may have a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor — they can help you determine the cause of your problem and discuss the best treatment options to get you back on track.
Published June 7, 2013.
Olivia Smith is a producer for Al Jazeera Network. 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.
Additional reporting by Katie Lewin.