Melatonin, a hormone generated in the brain by the pineal gland, helps control your sleep and wake cycles. Small amounts can be found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats, but many people buy it as a supplement.
Natural melatonin levels are highest at night and are partly controlled by your internal clock. These levels can be affected by light, especially in the winter months when the days get shorter. During the winter, seasonal depression may pop up, and that can partially be caused by natural melatonin levels being produced earlier or later in the day than usual.1
Age makes a difference, too, as melatonin levels slowly decrease. Some older adults may stop producing the hormone altogether.
Despite age or the time of day, there could be many reasons a person may want to take melatonin to help aid in sleep, like jet lag.
Jet lag occurs when a person changes time zones, whether via plane, train, or car. It can cause sleepiness during the day, loss of appetite, impaired alertness, and depressed mood, among other symptoms. Some are more prone to suffer from jet lag than others, especially depending on how many time zones are crossed.
A study titled “Jet Lag: Use of Melatonin and Melatonergic Drugs,” published in Melatonin and Melatonergic Drugs in Clinical Practice, found that the supplement is a highly effective treatment for jet lag and its range of symptoms, pointing to “the therapeutic values of melatonin and its agonists such as ramelteon in reducing the jet lag symptoms and use of the melatonergic antidepressant, agomelatine, for jet lag-associated depressive disorders.”2
Insomnia is another common reason a person may choose to reach for melatonin supplements. By definition, insomnia is simply the inability to sleep. The Mayo Clinic calls it a “persistent disorder” that many adults experience at some point in time. Common causes include stress, depression, anxiety, medical conditions, changes to your immediate environment, and caffeine, to name a few.
A research study titled “Meta-Analysis: Melatonin for the Treatment of Primary Sleep Disorders” reported on 19 studies involving over 1,600 subjects and found that melatonin “demonstrated significant efficacy in reducing sleep latency.” Overall, subjects taking the supplement saw their quality of sleep significantly improve, as opposed to those taking the placebo.
The study concluded that “melatonin decreases sleep onset latency, increases total sleep time and improves overall sleep quality. The effects of melatonin on sleep are modest but do not appear to dissipate with continued melatonin use … melatonin may have a role in the treatment of insomnia given its relatively benign side-effect profile compared to these agents.”3
Melatonin has also been shown to help those struggling with headaches, difficulty sleeping after surgery, and seasonal affective disorder.1
Research has found few significant side effects from the use of melatonin supplements for short-term use and in low doses; however, it is always important to consult a doctor before taking any nutritional supplements.
1Healthwise Inc. “Melatonin – Overview.” WebMD.com. http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/tc/melatonin-overview. Updated June 2012. Accessed July 2014.
2Av D, Brown G, Brzezinski A, Shillcutt S, Singh J, Srinivasan V, Zakaria R. “Jet Lag: Use of Melatonin and Melatonergic Drug.” Melatonin and Melatonergic Drugs in Clinical Practice. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-81-322-0825-9_26. Published October 2013. Accessed July 2014.
3Bloch M, Ferracioli-Oda E, Qawasmi A. “Meta-Analysis: Melatonin for the Treatment of Primary Sleep Disorders.” PsychiatryOnline.org. http://journals.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=1838891. Published January 2014. Accessed July 2014.