Preface: Over the course of the next several articles, we’ll be diving into common supplements suggested for sleep and determining who they’re for and when they should be used so you can determine whether they’re a helpful investment for you.
We’re going to get a little bit controversial today. You may be reading this title and think, “Duh. Melatonin produces sleep hormones. Next question.” I will not be disputing that melatonin obviously helps you sleep. That is not up for debate, physiologically.
What is up for debate, and a debate which we’ll take a stand on here, is whether the benefits of supplementing with exogenous melatonin outweighs the drawbacks.
First, we have to understand that melatonin is not like other supplements. Melatonin is a hormone. It’s not a vitamin. It’s a normal supplement like BCAAs or protein that, although of course they have effects, don’t directly shift our body’s hormonal environment.
A better analogy to understand the stakes of exogenous melatonin supplementation is to think about taking testosterone. Yes, testosterone. The stuff the baseball players got caught injecting into their butts in order to hit more home runs.
While testosterone replacement therapy and performance-enhancing steroids have their own, separate sets of controversies, few people would argue that the decision should be taken lightly. Generally speaking, when we externally provide our body with hormones like melatonin or testosterone, we create a cascade where our body reduces its natural production. This is not necessarily bad, but it comes with more consequences.
If you take melatonin to help you get to bed one night, then the next night, your body will produce a little bit less naturally. So you may be inclined to take melatonin again. Which makes the cycle worse and worse, and you can wind up in a situation where you need melatonin, at increasingly higher and higher doses, to get any kind of quality sleep.
As we talked about in this article on 5 ways to fall asleep fast, our sleep patterns are governed by our hormonal circadian rhythms. Melatonin is THE principal parasympathetic hormone that helps us sleep. In fact, here’s the graph we used in that article. That red line represents melatonin.
As we talked about there, there’s an inverse, or opposite, relationship between these classes of hormones. This means instead of reaching for the bottle of melatonin, first you should shift your habits to increase melatonin naturally.
As one example, exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin, so if you’re on screens well into the evening, and you haven’t…
- Made plans to get off screens earlier
- Shifted screens to night mode with more red-orange colors
- Invested in a pair of blue light-blocking glasses…
Then you really shouldn’t look into melatonin to solve your problems. You should be looking at improving your habits first. Avoid screens, finish exercise before dinner, do activities that help you wind down instead of ones that jolt you up.
Because of these inverse hormone relationships, it also means that supplementing with melatonin won’t make the sympathetic hormones coursing through your blood magically disappear.
Does this mean you should never take melatonin? No. There is a time and a place for it.
Melatonin will shift your circadian rhythm, so if you’re traveling to a far time zone, then a melatonin supplement around the bedtime in your new time zone can help you get to sleep, and then set your body for the new time zone. In these cases, there is very little downside, unless you’re traveling time zones all the time, which requires a whole other discussion.
If something in your life has happened and you just need to sleep, I won’t judge you for taking melatonin just to help you sleep. Life happens, and we don’t all treat our bodies like we’re professional athletes designed to only function at our best all the time. When life hits you and you just want to take melatonin to sleep, you can, but do so sparingly.
Even when you take melatonin, for traveling or otherwise, you’ll need a lot less than you think. In fact, start with the lowest dose possible if you’re just using it to get to sleep. If you’re older, you’re more sensitive to melatonin, and as little as 1 milligrams can be very effective. They sell melatonin at big ranges of doses, and the most common small dose is 3mg, which you can browse through a range of reputable brands here. By starting at a lower dose, you cap a lot of the downside.