Melatonin for Sleep: Everything You Need to Know

Melatonin sounds like a cure-all but there’s a few things you need to know before using it for better sleep.

Person in bed taking melatonin supplements at night for sleep

Got melatonin on your mind? If you’ve read up on sleep, you’ve probably seen it mentioned — a lot. Perhaps you’re being served targeted Instagram ads that swear (in a hip way) “This isn’t your mother’s melatonin.” It’s time to get the lowdown on what this hormone really does or what the limits of a melatonin supplement actually are.

We broke down the research for you so that you’ll understand not only how melatonin works — but also how to make it work for you. For example, some melatonin is on IG time-release melatonin, which could make all the difference if you tend to feel espresso-level awake in the middle of your sleep? Also, melatonin hangover is real, and it’s something to watch out for.

We’ve rounded up the top questions we hear about melatonin, and answered them in both quick and in-depth ways, below so you can learn the best ways to make melatonin work for you.

  1. What is melatonin? Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in your pineal gland to help with your sleep wake cycle.
  2. How does melatonin work? Your pineal gland releases melatonin when you’re exposed to darkness. So yes, light exposure will block melatonin production.
  3. Why does melatonin help with sleep? Its purpose is to kick off relaxation processes so you feel ready to sleep.
  4. What disrupts your natural melatonin production? Jet lag, shift work, blue light, and other changes to a regular day-to-night wake-to-sleep transition can delay melatonin production and make you feel sleepy later.
  5. Are there other benefits of melatonin? The recovery sleep melatonin induces can help with eye, gut, and immune health. (We cover this and more below.)
  6. Is melatonin safe? Yes, in the short term. But long-term use is not recommended. Check with your doc for medication interactions or contraindications.
  7. Are there side effects to melatonin? Headache, nausea, dizziness, and drowsiness are common feelings.
  8. Is melatonin safe for kids? Yes, in the short term. But talk to your child’s doctor first.
  9. What are the side effects of melatonin in kids? Nightmares, bedwetting, headaches, dizziness, upset stomach, mood changes, and daytime sleepiness.
  10. Can you take melatonin while pregnant? Researchers haven’t studied the pros and cons yet, so it’s not recommended.
  11. What dosage of melatonin should I start with? Start with the smallest dose available and see if it works.
  12. Is melatonin overdose possible? Melatonin can’t cause deaths, but the side effects of too much melatonin aren’t pleasant.
  13. Is melatonin addictive? No. You may just be craving sleep.
  14. What is the best melatonin? Synthetic-made melatonin.
  15. Is melatonin FDA-regulated? It is regulated as a dietary supplement rather than a med. Supplements aren’t subject to the same testing requirements and don’t undergo the same approval process as a drug.
  16. Should I take time-release melatonin? It may help if you have difficulty staying asleep throughout the night. (Why? Read more below.)
  17. What are the forms of melatonin? From pills to tinctures to gummies, melatonin basically comes in any form you like.

What is melatonin?

Nicknamed the sleep hormone, melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the pineal gland to regulate your sleep and wake cycles. If it were a character in a graphic novel, it would be called “The Hormone of Darkness.” But in no way is it a villain. Melatonin acts as a superhero for our circadian rhythm by amping up its presence when its time for bed.

Infographic showing how natural melatonin rises at night and goes down in the morning, in accordance with light exposure
Ashlee Wadeson

Melatonin helps lower blood pressure and body temperature and induces other relaxing processes that ready you for slumber. Sleepiness generally kicks in about two hours after melatonin production begins. Melatonin levels peak in the middle of the night and then decrease towards dawn, so that your body starts to awaken.

What are the additional benefits of melatonin?

Like a true superhero, melatonin has multiple superpowers beyond helping us snag more precious pillow time. Melatonin is involved in immune system regulation, gut health, brain health, and cardiovascular health. It also acts as an antioxidant, offering the body some protection from harmful free radicals and inflammation. Jet lag recovery? Acid reflux? Depression? Check, check, and check.

In fact, researchers have been investigating melatonin for help with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), migraine, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, mood disorders, tinnitus, and even cancer. But more research is needed to confirm these potential benefits. Melatonin supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat or cure any medical condition or disease.

In fact, too much melatonin can be problematic (more on that in a bit).

How does natural melatonin production occur?

When your eyes get exposed to light, they send messages to the pineal gland, located mid-brain, about this exposure. As you experience more darkness after sundown, the pineal gland converts serotonin to melatonin. And then melatonin figuratively puts your body into its cozy jammies and tucks you in.

Unfortunately, our internal clocks don’t always work like fancy-schmancy smartwatches. Things like shift work, travel, seasonal changes, exposure to blue light from screens, light pollution from the street, and more can impact melatonin production. And when melatonin production is less than stellar, we can experience minor sleep disturbances.

Are melatonin supplements the answer for sleep?

In supplement form, melatonin is like having a superhero on call. Research shows that melatonin can help synchronize the circadian rhythm when it gets out of whack and help you fall asleep faster. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) also considers controlled-release melatonin a first-line pharmacologic therapy for sleep issues.

But melatonin is not the cure-all unicorn supplement for ongoing sleep issues.

If you’re taking medications, you should definitely get the A-OK from your healthcare provider in case of any interactions or contraindications. People with diabetes, bleeding or clotting disorders, blood pressure issues, seizures, or organ transplants may not be able to take melatonin for various reasons.

The safety of long-term use, or while pregnant or breastfeeding, is also unknown. Melatonin’s affects can linger and cause daytime drowsiness, which can be a safety concern when driving or completing other tasks. And some people may have an allergic reaction to melatonin in supplement form.

So is over-the-counter melatonin safe?

Melatonin use in the short term is likely safe for most people. Feeling jet-lagged? Having a tense Tuesday? Working a few wonky shifts? Melatonin might offer a short-term fix for an easier time nodding off so you can recover.

But there are a few caveats.

Give melatonin about 30 to 60 minutes to start making you feel pretty chill. Melatonin may not work well for you if you tend to fight your body’s sleep cues, because it doesn’t instantly send you to snooze-ville. It’s best to use melatonin in conjunction with a sleep routine rather than as a hit-the-pillow-and-I'm-out fix. It just doesn’t work like that.

Infographic describing suggestions for melatonin dosage and timing. Best time: About 30-60 minutes before bed. Time release melatonin for difficulty staying asleep, and always starting at the lowest dosage possible. Talk to your doctor before trying supplements.
Ashlee Wadeson

Is melatonin safe for kids?

Maybe they’re struggling to wind down if going to sleep when it’s still bright outside or they’re just having an off week. It makes sense to want to find a solution to help your kid sleep better, especially a natural one.

But there’s not enough research around long-term use to say melatonin gummies are as good to go as your multivitamins. Researchers are concerned that melatonin supplementation in kids could delay puberty onset.

That said, melatonin use in the short term is likely fine, as long as your pediatrician gives you the all-clear and offers a recommended dose, and your child isn’t taking any meds or supplements that could cause an interaction.

Keep an eye out for potential side effects in kids, including nightmares, increased bedwetting, headaches, dizziness, gastrointestinal upset, changes in mood, and daytime sleepiness.

What dosage of melatonin should I take — and when?

Because the FDA does not regulate melatonin as a drug (more on that below), a medical consensus on melatonin dosage is lacking. Researchers say doses of 1 to 6 milligrams appear to be effective. Scientists from MIT recommend 0.3 milligrams. But many supplements have 1 milligram servings.

Start out with the smallest dose possible. And if that works for you, there’s no need to increase.

For children, consult a pediatrician for a recommended supplement and dosage. Take melatonin about 30 minutes before bedtime so that it kicks in as your natural levels of the neurohormone start to rise. But some people may find it helps to take it even earlier.

Is melatonin regulated by the FDA?

The FDA does regulate melatonin, but as a dietary supplement instead of a prescription. This means melatonin supplements aren’t required to go through strict testing requirements, and the FDA doesn’t review them unless they’re making a claim to treat a condition or disease. Instead, the FDA is responsible for taking action against brands for “adulterated or misbranded” supplements once they’re already available.

This style of regulation means that melatonin supplements on the market will vary in quality and dosage quantity. One study looked at 31 supplements and found that 71% of them did not meet within a 10% margin of what the label claimed. That means you could be taking more than intended.

Again, this is all the more reason to start with a low dose and not rely on melatonin for addressing underlying, long-term sleep problems like insomnia.

What are the main side effects of melatonin?

The most common side effects of melatonin include headache, nausea, dizziness, and of course the intended drowsiness you’re after. But be aware that drowsiness can linger the next day or cause what’s called a melatonin “hangover.” If you experience any of these side effects, scale back on your dose.

Infographic listing the side-effects of melatonin: headaches, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness
Ashlee Wadeson

Is melatonin overdose possible?

No deaths have been reported from taking too much melatonin. But taking more than the recommended amount can lead to adverse effects, including nightmares, confusion, dizziness, gastrointestinal issues, rapid heart rate, changes in blood pressure, hypothermia, and drug interactions.

Is melatonin addictive?

Currently there is no evidence that melatonin is addictive. In fact, melatonin is being studied to help with sleep issues and other concerns for people with substance use disorder. But again, more research is needed.

If you are worried about the safety of melatonin, be sure to watch out for any side effects.

What is the best type of melatonin?

You can find two types of supplemental melatonin. One is extracted from the pineal gland of a cow or other animal. The other is synthetic, or lab-made. Animal-derived melatonin can be contaminated with viruses or other baddies. So stick to synthetic options.

You can also help boost melatonin production by eating certain foods for sleep and dimming lights at night. But if environmental factors are out of your control, like in cases of jet lag, supplemental melatonin can give your sleep schedule a little boost.

Should I take time-release melatonin?

Natural levels of melatonin peak in the middle of your sleep session. When you take a regular melatonin supplement, you may experience a peak much earlier since the dose is delivered all at once. After the peak, levels fall, which could leave you waking up in the middle of the night.

Controlled, time, or extended-release supplements mimic the gradual natural rise in melatonin levels. So if you have trouble staying asleep, a time release supplement might work for you.

Which melatonin supplements should I try?

Supplements can be found in many easy to take forms. Liquid tinctures, capsules, tablets, and even tasty gummies are just a few of the options out there. Keep in mind that if you’re chewing a sweet gummy before bed to brush your chompers after. No cavities here!

To find a reputable supplement, look for USP Verified Mark. This seal means that a dietary supplement has been verified by the United States Pharmacopeia for labeling accuracy, ingredient safety, sanitary manufacturing practices and more.

Other sleep tips for melatonin-use

If you really want melatonin supplements to do their best work, there are other routine changes you may want to consider, such as:

  • Starting your bedtime routine after you take your supplement and avoid eating after. 
  • Timing your meals earlier in the day to help regulate your circadian rhythm.  
  • Getting more light exposure and activity levels during the day, rather than at night.  
  • Limiting light exposure, especially blue light, at night.  

These changes can work to rev your natural melatonin production. And over time, you may find that your circadian rhythm seems more in tune with when you want to tune out. With your sleep schedule on a better track, then your supplement can simply serve as a handy standby.