7 Unexpected Things Doctors Want You To Know About Melatonin

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When you hear the word melatonin, you probably think of sleep. After all, melatonin does play a big role in getting you to sleep each night. Some people get help from melatonin supplements to provide temporary relief from insomnia or jet lag. But what do we actually know about the sleep hormone? According to doctors, there are a few things about melatonin everyone should know.

"Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland in the brain that helps control daily sleep-wake cycles," Dr. Edo Paz, MD with K Health, tells Bustle. "Your body’s internal clock (a.k.a. circadian rhythm), as well as light exposure, influences how much melatonin the pineal gland makes."

Melatonin levels typically start to rise in the mid-to-late evening after the sun sets. It stays elevated for most of the night and then drops in the morning as the sun rises.

For people who need temporary help in getting sleep, melatonin is suggested to be taken on a regular basis for at least a few weeks. As Arielle Levitan M.D., physician of internal medicine and vitamin expert, tells Bustle, "The intention is to 'reset' your biological clock to show your body when to sleep. Melatonin is hormone your brain naturally makes to promote sleep and taking a supplement mimics this."

In the United States, melatonin can be purchased pretty much anywhere. Although Dr. Stephen B. Hill of Hill Functional Wellness, tells Bustle that melatonin supplements are a "conservative intervention for insomnia or other sleep-related issues," misuse can lead to some mild to moderate adverse effects. It's a good idea to understand the details about the use of melatonin before taking it. So here are some things doctors want you to know about melatonin.

1. Melatonin Is Not A Vitamin

Again, melatonin is a hormone. Since it's not a vitamin, Dr. Len Lopez, certified clinical nutritionist, tells Bustle, it doesn't need to go through your digestive system and liver like other foods. Vitamins, minerals, fats, and carbs all need to go through the digestive process in order to be utilized. But when it comes to melatonin, the best way to take it is sublingually. "Let it dissolve under your tongue, so it can immediately get into your blood stream, into your systemic circulation," he says. "Don’t swallow it. If you have a bad digestive system, you're only further reducing the potential of the melatonin."

2. Your Lifestyle Habits Can Impact Your Natural Melatonin Production

There are a few habits you should consider changing if you want to help your body produce more melatonin. "We live in a time where people are staying up later working, watching television, or scrolling on their phones," Dr. Judy Hinojosa, N.M.D lead physician and owner of Vitality Natural Health Care, tells Bustle. "We’re also eating later in the day because we’re staying up late – both of these factors can adversely affect our sleep." Having electronic devices next to your bed, watching TV, drinking alcohol, snacking, and exercising too intensely right before bed, can also be disruptive to your sleep. So if you are having trouble sleeping, try changing these habits first before you turn to sleep aids.

3. Not Having Enough Magnesium In Your Body Can Affect Your Melatonin Levels

"While melatonin can be helpful for sleep, realize that many common vitamin deficiencies can underly insomnia," Levitan says. For instance, if you want to increase your melatonin levels naturally, getting enough magnesium in your body is sure to help. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences found that older adults who took a dietary magnesium supplement for eight weeks saw significant increases in the amount of sleep they got, sleep efficiency, and melatonin. Some foods rich in magnesium include leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. "It's also advisable to replace nutritional deficiencies such as iron, B12, Vitamin D and magnesium with a custom all in one vitamin that meets individual needs," Levitan says.

4. Melatonin Is Generally Safe For Short-Term Use

Taking a sleep aid may seem sort of risky. But if you want to take a melatonin supplement, Paz says it's generally safe for short-term use. Some of its benefits include insomnia relief and shortened jet lag symptoms. While melatonin is pretty safe overall, it's still important to be cautious. "Some preparations of melatonin may cause levels of melatonin in the blood that are much higher than normal levels," he says. "This can result in daytime sleepiness and decreased mental performance. Headache has also been reported as a side effect of melatonin."

5. It Can Be Habit-Forming If You're Not Careful

Melatonin is relatively safe to use. However, keep in mind that it can be habit-forming. "Due to the negative feedback nature of production cycles, your body will not produce as much of its own melatonin when you are [...] consuming it," Hill says. "Some individuals can become dependent on it because of this reason." If you must take a supplement, try to remember that it works best for short-term use. If you need it any longer than that, you may want to consult with a doctor to find any underlying causes for your sleep issues.

6. Melatonin Won't Help Long-Term If You Don't Have "Sleep-Promoting" Habits

The truth is, taking a melatonin supplement can only do so much. "Although natural sleep supplements may not be addictive in the technical sense of the word, people can certainly become overly reliant on them," Erin Stokes, ND, medical director at MegaFood, tells Bustle. "It's important to incorporate lifestyle and nutrition changes that support healthy sleep, in addition to taking supplements." Some healthy lifestyle changes that can greatly help include daily meditations to alleviate stress from the day and caffeine reduction.

7. Melatonin Isn't Meant To Completely Knock You Out

"Many people think taking melatonin will knock you out like some other sleep aids, resulting in daytime sleepiness," Paz says. However, that's not always the case. Some people may experience a hangover-like effect. But when used at appropriate doses, Paz says, it can help your body quite a bit. For instance, it can help your body know that it's nighttime, so you can relax and hopefully fall asleep easier. It's also great to have if you're traveling to a different time zone and your body needs a little help to get adjusted.

Sleep is something pretty much any one of us can probably use more of. When you're lacking sleep for just one night, it can throw off your entire day. And when you're consistently running on very little sleep, it can make you prone to some serious health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

While melatonin supplements can help, the best thing to do is to form habits that can help to increase its production naturally. If you really need it for just a little while, it doesn't hurt to talk to your doctor beforehand. In general, it's always important to have the necessary information before you decide to put anything in your body.

Editor's Note: This piece was updated from its original version on July 3, 2019 to meet Bustle's editorial standards.