Natural Sources Of Melatonin To Help You Sleep The Entire Night (Sans Hormones)
Walk down any pharmacy aisle and you'll likely find at least one bottle of high-dose melatonin (3 to 5 milligrams, or even higher) claiming to help promote better sleep (in the U.S. at least, since it's only available as a prescription in most other countries). However, as Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN explained on an episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, the science behind using melatonin as a nightly sleep supplement is shaky at best—and harmful at worst.
Here's why mbg's vice president of scientific affairs is skeptical of taking these particular supplements and how she recommends supporting the body's natural stores of melatonin instead.
Why Ashley doesn't recommend taking melatonin nightly.
Melatonin is a hormone that our brains produce at night to tell the rest of the body to wind down. When your natural levels of melatonin are low, taking a synthetic version of the hormone (and 99% of melatonin supplements are synthetic) essentially tricks your brain into thinking it's bedtime.
As such, Ferira explains, the most compelling use1 of melatonin supplements is to overcome an anomaly in your body clock (circadian rhythm), like when you're traveling to a new time zone or acclimating to a night shift at work. As far as enhancing sleep quality on a nightly basis, though, she says the research just isn't there.
She also warns that taking a hormone nightly can lead to desensitization and cause you to need higher and higher doses in order to feel any effect. Over time, this may throw off your body's natural production and levels of melatonin, as well as other important hormones.
"I have not seen good data to show that high doses of melatonin will not impact your endogenous, natural production of melatonin," Ferira says on the podcast. In fact, so far preliminary studies are showing just the opposite: A preclinical study in Nature2 recently found that supplemental melatonin may negatively affect thyroid health, while other research has shown it can inhibit the function of hormones like estrogen and male growth hormone3.
"I think there's more research to be done here," concludes Ferira. But until we have a better idea of the long-term effects of melatonin supplementation, she doesn't recommend taking the hormone nightly unless otherwise instructed by an endocrinologist.
Alternatives for sleep.
Luckily, there are sleep aids that can support your body's natural production of melatonin, helping prime the body for a restorative night's sleep without added hormones. Here are a few that Ferira recommends trying out with the support of your doctor:
Tart cherry extract
"Interestingly, tart cherry extract is a natural source of melatonin4," Ferira notes, and the natural fruit extract has been shown to enhance sleep efficiency4 (the amount of time you actually spend asleep when in bed) in controlled trials. It can either be consumed as a bedtime juice or as a supplement.
"5-HTP produces serotonin, which can then be converted into melatonin if there is vitamin B6 around," Ferira explains. So while this adds a few more steps to the process, supplements with the 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) amino acid have still demonstrated some benefits for reducing the amount of time it takes people to fall asleep5.
A nonhormonal sleep supplement
And finally, while they may not have a direct impact on melatonin, Ferira is a proponent of nonhormonal sleep aids like the essential macromineral magnesium, amino acid bioactive PharmaGABA®, and jujube fruit (a botanical extract).* These are the three active ingredients you'll find in mindbodygreen's bestselling sleep support+ supplement, which is designed to not only help people fall asleep faster but stay asleep longer and wake up feeling more refreshed.* Each of these ingredients has clinical evidence to show their efficacy, making this one seriously science-backed sleep supplement.*
Ferira notes that plant ingredients like lemon balm, hops, passionflower, and skullcap can also be relaxing picks for bedtime (as well as full-spectrum hemp oil, for an effective wind-down ritual tool). While they haven't been tested in numerous clinical trials, they have a long history of use as herbal remedies to back them up.
While melatonin can be effective for resetting your body clock every once in a while, it won't necessarily help with nightly sleep support—and it might be harmful when regularly taken in high doses. Instead, look into natural melatonin enhancers like tart cherry juice or 5-HTP the next time you could use some help in the shut-eye department for a circadian rhythm reset, or try a nonhormonal sleep aid like sleep support+.* Be sure to dim the lights and turn off electronics at night to further support the natural production of melatonin and prime your body for a wonderful snooze, sans added hormones.
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.