Melatonin For Sleep: When It Works, When It Doesn't & Other Options
While many people know it as a sleep aid, melatonin is first and foremost a hormone that our bodies produce to keep our sleep-wake cycles on track. When consumed as a low-dose supplement, melatonin may help sleep in some cases, but it won't necessarily prove effective for everyone.
Here's what the research tells us about taking melatonin for sleep, a few reasons it may not work for you, and some other sleep solutions to look into.
What is melatonin?
"Melatonin plays a key role in regulating our circadian rhythm," explains Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM, a behavioral sleep doctor and the author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. "The pineal gland is inactive during the day, but as the sun goes down, it activates and naturally produces melatonin to help induce sleepiness. About two hours before you naturally awaken in the morning, melatonin production slows and you begin to slowly awaken."
David Kennaway, Ph.D., the research program leader of the Circadian Physiology Group at The University of Adelaide in Australia, adds that while regulating circadian rhythm is one of melatonin's jobs, it isn't the only one. The hormone also plays a role in cardiovascular function1, blood sugar2, immunity3, reproductive health, hormonal health, and a number of other processes in the body.
Seeing as it's such a powerful and all-important hormone, Kennaway notes that melatonin is not marketed as a supplement in most countries outside the U.S. and Canada. It's only available as a prescription—and one that is only intended for short-term use in adults.
"There appear to be no acute side effects4 [of supplemental melatonin]," he tells mbg. "But if consumed long term, we still do not know what happens in people who have underlying health issues."
Why melatonin supplements may not work for you
Melatonin's main job is sending the signal that it's time for bed. As such, Harris has seen melatonin supplements be most effective for those looking to adjust to bedtimes their bodies are not used to (when acclimating to a new time zone or trying to become less of a night owl, for example).
For these purposes, she says melatonin is best consumed in low doses (0.5 milligrams to 1 milligram) in the 30 to 60 minutes leading up to your intended bedtime. "If you're taking more than 3 to 5 milligrams nightly, then melatonin isn't likely for you. There's just no data suggesting that more than [0.5 milligram to 1 milligram] is indicated for sleep issues, and sometimes more is just more," she notes.
When taken on a nightly basis, there is limited evidence5 that melatonin will improve sleep quality. While it may make it easier to fall asleep slightly quicker, Kennaway notes it won't necessarily make it easier to stay asleep or reach deep sleep stages. All this to say: If melatonin has not worked quite as you wanted it to in the past, you wouldn't be alone.
Kennaway notes that he's seen many people expect melatonin to make up for bad habits like eating heavy meals or drinking alcohol too close to bedtime, using electronics late at night, and keeping an inconsistent bedtime—which it definitely cannot do.
"It can help some people, but it isn't the cure-all for everyone that it frequently is thought to be," Harris echoes.
RELATED STORY: Does Melatonin Make You Feel Groggy & Foggy? You're Not Alone
Other popular natural sleep aids
All other sleep supplements are like melatonin in that they can't make up for poor sleep hygiene. Nor can they treat recognized sleep disorders like insomnia. Instead, they are meant to serve an adjunct—supplementary—role in an otherwise healthy nightly routine.
There is limited research on how various ingredients affect sleep in healthy people, but here are a few non-melatonin sleep aids that have gained popularity in recent years, and the science we have on them:
- Magnesium: Magnesium is an essential mineral that our bodies need to thrive. Many people don't get enough of it from diet alone. Many types of magnesium supplements are available, but magnesium bisglycinate shows the most promise for sleep.* It combines magnesium with the amino acid glycine, which has been shown to improve sleep quality and sleep efficacy in somestudies6.*
- L-theanine: A neurologically active amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine works by blocking receptors in the brain that can initiate a stress response. For those who tend to feel stressed at night before bed, clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., notes that L-theanine supplements can be calming.* They tend to strike a balance between relaxing but not sedating, he previously wrote on mbg.*
- 5-HTP: 5-HTP is thought to indirectly affect melatonin levels. The amino acid can increase the production of feel-good serotonin in the body, which can then be converted into melatonin7. Because of this chain reaction, Breus notes that 5-HTP supplements may help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep—especially when combined with other sleep promoters like GABA8.*
- GABA: Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the human brain's main inhibitory neurotransmitter, and our bodies naturally release it to help us calm down and rest. Supplemental GABA, produced using a fermentation process, can also be taken as a sleep-enhancing supplement.*
- Hemp: Hemp oil and its key phytocannabinoids (plant compounds) like CBD are typically used to help ease feelings of anxiousness and stress9.* As such, it may also help those who are worry-prone to wind down before bed.* One 2019 study10 found that it improved the sleep scores of 48 people who struggled with stress and restlessness in the short term.*
- Valerian, hops, and other herbals: Other botanicals that show some potential in promoting sleep and relaxation include jujube, valerian11 and hops12 (especially when paired together13), lemon balm, tart cherry14, and lavender15.*
What to look for in a supplement
If you've already cleaned up your sleep routine and are looking to further support your sleep with a non-melatonin supplement, there are a few key things to look out for.
For starters, look for ingredients that have been studied in humans, backed by sleep-relevant science, and dosed properly. Fillers like binders; preservatives; artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners; as well as allergens like gluten, eggs, dairy, or soy are best avoided and often unnecessary.
Be wary of any claims that a supplement can treat sleep disorders. Not only do dietary supplement regulations forbid that, as Harris and Kennaway both note, but those with sleep issues that are getting in the way of their lives will want to see a doctor who can set them up with a regimen that may include lifestyle adjustments, cognitive behavioral therapy, other remedies, or a combination of these strategies.
Our product recommendations
It's with these criteria in mind that we chose these five non-melatonin sleep aids from mbg's master list of the best science-backed sleep supplements. Everyone has different sleep needs, but if you're looking for a melatonin-free supplement to support healthy rest, they are a good place to start.*
1. NOW Double Strength L-Theanine 200 mg Veg Capsules
Active ingredients: L-Theanine
According to a 2020 systematic review16, 200 milligrams is the minimum amount of L-theanine you'll need to take to feel its calming sleep effects. This double-strength option from NOW has 200 milligrams per vegetable capsule and features a short, scannable ingredient list with no additives.*
2. mindbodygreen sleep support+
Active ingredients: magnesium bisglycinate, jujube, PharmaGABA®
For sleep support+, mbg worked with scientists and industry experts to formulate a supplement that can help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. The resulting blend of magnesium bisglycinate, jujube for calming and sedation, and PharmaGABA® for sleep quality17 is powerfully effective yet gentle enough for most people to use nightly. We're obviously biased, but you can read through reviews of the supplement here.*
mindbodygreen sleep support+ ($49)
3. FAB CBD Pure CBD Oil
Active ingredients: Hemp
For the hemp fans, FAB's 2,400-milligram CBD tincture delivers 40 milligrams of CBD per serving—a research-backed amount9 for easing stress come bedtime. FAB's hemp is organically grown in Colorado and has been lab-tested for purity. The company is also transparent about the results and publishes each lab report on its website.* Use code MBG20 to Save 20%.
FAB CBD Pure CBD Oil ($129)
4. Gaia Herbs Sleep & Relax
Active ingredients: Passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile
Gaia is known for its commitment to sourcing high-quality herbs, and the brand's Sleep & Relax blend combines soothing favorites like stress-reducing18 lemon balm and calming19 chamomile. For those who like to end their day with a cuppa, the company also makes a line of relaxing, stress-easing teas.*
Gaia Herbs Sleep & Relax™ ($30)
5. Seeking Health 5-HTP Capsules
Active ingredients: Plant-derived 5-HTP
Extracted from the seeds of the Griffonia simplicifolia plant, this plant-derived 5-HTP can help support the body's production of melatonin and deliver some of those sleep-time benefits. Seeking Health's supplement is suitable for vegans and vegetarians and features a short ingredient list.*
Seeking Health 5-HTP Capsules ($16)
Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies produce around bedtime, and it doesn't necessarily translate to nightly use as a sleep-promoting supplement. If you have tried taking melatonin in the past to no avail, clean up your sleep regimen and consult your doctor if you suspect a larger issue could be at play. For those without underlying conditions, trying one of these non-melatonin sleep aids may also be helpful.*
RELATED STORY: Take Melatonin Every Night? How & Why Experts Say To Stop
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.