We’ve all been there. Sleep-deprived and lying awake unable to fall asleep. When counting sheep doesn’t cut it, a growing number of Americans are turning to melatonin to fall asleep faster. As more people turn to this hormone to catch some sleep, safety concerns, misconceptions and cases of misuse are also skyrocketing. Read on to learn more about melatonin and whether or not the relief is worth the risks.

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body that regulates our sleep and wake cycles. Melatonin is primarily released by the pineal gland. When our bodies are exposed to light, it stimulates the part of our brain that controls hormones, our body temperature and other bodily functions that make us feel awake or drowsy. Our pineal glands are inactive during the day. Around dusk or 9:00 pm, the gland begins to release melatonin into our bloodstream. Melatonin levels in our bodies rise throughout the night and they remain elevated for around 12 hours. By 9:00 am our melatonin levels have decreased. During the day, you can barely trace any levels of melatonin in our bodies. This cycle of waking and sleepiness repeats every day around the same time. For shift workers or people who regularly work at night, it is possible to shift our natural clocks over time.

Melatonin as a sleep aid explained

Melatonin is available over the counter and as a dietary supplement. Because some foods contain melatonin naturally, the over the counter pills don’t need to be regulated by the FDA. Over the counter melatonin has been used to help change our biological sleep clocks. Using it as a shift worker or to help with jet lag has proved beneficial. It will not initiate sleep as a sleeping pill will. Instead, it increases the amount of melatonin in your body so your body feels a sense of drowsiness.

Melatonin can be useful to reset our bodies clocks and the appropriate dosage has been shown to be helpful for many people. Some research also shows that light exposure may be just as helpful, however, as this is what sends signals to your brain to release your bodies own natural melatonin. There have been studies that show children with autism and ADHD, have had very effective results using melatonin supplements. Many children studied shown an increase of at least an hour’s worth of sleep.

In recent years, consumer spending on melatonin supplements has grown from $259 million in 2012 to over $425 million in 2018 according to Nutrition Business Journal. Over three million adults and a half-million children use melatonin supplements.

The risks and safety concerns

The synthetic melatonin sold in stores hasn’t caused any overdoses as of yet however there are concerns about its uses. From 2014 to 2018 the American Association of Poison Control Centers has seen an 86% increases in calls about children exposed to melatonin. Although these supplements now come in the form of gummies, teas, and sprays, people assume they are natural and safe for both adults and children. They are being advertised as vitamins however they are a hormone.

While they are generally safe and not habit-forming, adults and parents should turn to other methods before grabbing these supplements and you should always consult a doctor. It’s important to remember that these are not regulated by the FDA and the melatonin sold at stores is a synthetic hormone and not a vitamin. Experts recommend carefully choosing the brand you are taking. Your doctor can help you determine the best dosage and timing for you. Once your sleep and schedule are on track, you should stop taking the supplements.