Tired People Want To Know: Is It OK To Take Melatonin Every Night?
With more than a third of Americans struggling to snooze1 on a consistent basis, it's no surprise that the demand for sleep aids is on the rise. Melatonin is one of the most popular options sold in the U.S., with new research showing that melatonin supplement use quadrupled in this country2 between 1999 and 2018.
There's no question that we need some major help in the sleep department. But is melatonin really the best option, and is it even safe for nightly use? Here's why physicians and sleep experts caution against taking melatonin nightly and how they recommend improving your sleep instead.
What melatonin is used for.
Melatonin is a hormone that our pineal gland secretes to tell the body that it's time to wind down for sleep. The amount of melatonin you produce depends on a number of factors, with the biggest being your exposure to light. Melatonin levels usually rise after sunset (hence its nickname "the hormone of darkness") and fall when the sun rises in the morning, which helps your body wake up.
People who use bright lights or technology at night, or who need to stay awake during the evenings for work or travel, might find that their melatonin levels are out of whack, causing them to feel wide-awake when they should be asleep. This is where melatonin supplements usually come in. "Melatonin is really helpful as a 'chronobiological agent' to adjust the sleep cycle," explains Nishi Bhopal, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in sleep medicine.
Bhopal notes—and other experts agree—that increasing melatonin levels through supplementation can be helpful for correcting a temporary disruption in your sleep-wake cycle, like when you're traveling to a new time zone or acclimating to a night shift at work. In other words, it can make it easier for you to fall asleep at a new time. But once you get your sleep schedule back on track, it's best to stop taking the hormone, as consuming melatonin nightly—especially in high doses—is not recommended.
What to know about dosage & when to take it.
To correct a short-term sleep disruption, Bhopal recommends taking no more than 0.5 to 1 milligram of melatonin at a time. "I tell my clients 'less is more' when it comes to melatonin," she says, as taking higher doses of it can increase the likelihood of uncomfortable side effects like grogginess upon waking.
Seema Bonney, M.D., the founder and medical director of the Anti-Aging & Longevity Center of Philadelphia, notes that melatonin typically stays in the system between four to eight hours, and it can take 30 minutes to two hours to "kick in" depending on the formulation. This means that most people will want to take it within the hour leading up to bed to help them fall asleep at their desired time.
In addition to sticking to lower doses, Bhopal notes that it's important to buy melatonin from a reputable brand. The vast majority of melatonin supplements are synthetic and can be made at varying quality standards. She points to one study that tested melatonin supplements and found that they can contain anywhere from 83% less to 478% more melatonin than listed on the label. Some also tested positive for unlisted ingredients like serotonin, a neurotransmitter chemical (and a controlled substance.)
So, is it bad to take melatonin every night?
While short-term melatonin use is considered safe for most people, there is limited research to show that it is effective for promoting sleep long term. And beyond being ineffective, taking melatonin every night can be harmful.
"It's important to remember that melatonin is a hormone and using any hormone regularly can down-regulate your own production of that hormone," notes Bonney.
"I have not seen good data to show that high doses of melatonin will not impact your endogenous, natural production of melatonin," echoes Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, mbg's vice president of scientific affairs.
Considering its potential to throw off hormone health, it makes sense that melatonin is only available as a prescription in most countries. "Melatonin is a hormone and should be used intentionally, ideally under the guidance of a licensed health professional," says Bhopal.
So consider this sleep myth squashed: You should not take melatonin every night.
Better alternatives to melatonin.
If you could use some help achieving deep, restorative sleep each night, there are a few ways to support your body's natural ability to create melatonin. For starters, seek out sunlight (or a sun lamp) during the day and keep your environment dark at night.
This means avoiding bright lights and screens too close to bedtime and wearing blue-light-blocking glasses if you do need to scroll through your phone or check email. "Remember you have photoreceptors all over your body, so eliminating light [at night] as much as possible is helpful," says Bonney. (This guide walks you through how to create the ultimate dark sleep space.) Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day will also help regulate your natural production of melatonin.
And as for other supplements that can help enhance sleep, there are a number of options that won't send your hormones haywire. And unlike the neurohormone melatonin—which only helps you fall asleep faster—these can actually enhance your sleep quality and help you wake up feeling more rested and ready to go.*
The following science-backed ingredients can help improve overall sleep quality, and the most effective melatonin-free sleep aids will have them*:
If you've cleaned up your sleep routine, cut out electronics before bed, found a new sleep supplement, and still are having trouble sleeping, Bhopal recommends talking to your doctor or a sleep specialist "to see if there might be something else going on that needs to be addressed."
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your sleep timing. Taking it in supplement form can be helpful for quickly tweaking your body clock, but experts agree it should not be consumed nightly. In order to improve your overall sleep quality, you'll want to support your body's natural production of melatonin instead by getting plenty of light during the day, seeking out darkness at night, and keeping your sleep schedule consistent.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.