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What You Need to Know About Melatonin

Melatonin supplements are a common form of hormone therapy. Learn the proper way to take this popular sleep aid.

A friend of mine first recommended I take melatonin after I told him I thought stress was keeping me awake. I was newly out of college, living in a big city and trying to survive on two part-time jobs and an unpaid internship. I only took one tablet, instead of the recommended two, and 20 minutes later, I was out. 

I have always been leery of sleeping pills since I am rendered nearly catatonic after taking certain over-the-counter nighttime cold and flu formulas. But this worked, without leaving me unable to get going the next morning. Since then, I have kept a bottle in my medicine cabinet for when I feel I need to catch up.

The April 18 episode of "The Doctors" brought up melatonin again, encouraging those thinking of supplementing melatonin to really examine their needs and explaining when taking melatonin is appropriate. It made me realize I didn't really know much about my go-to sleep assistant.

How Melatonin Works

As Dr. Travis Stork explained, melatonin is first and foremost a hormone. Hormones are proteins that travel throughout the body triggering responses. As with all hormones, it is important to keep levels of melatonin in balance. When we are in bed at night, the change in light triggers the release of melatonin from the pineal gland, usually around 9 p.m., according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). The melatonin travels throughout the body through the bloodstream, helping us fall asleep. These levels remain elevated for about 12 hours. 

Melatonin is also an antioxidant, which can help your body fight off free radicals. We encounter free radicals daily through pollutants and other toxins, and they can damage cells and cause illness and infection. 

Who Can Take Melatonin

Different lifestyle factors, such as working at night or in changing shifts, can cause an individual to be melatonin-deficient. Taking melatonin supplements can help you regulate your body to encourage a natural sleep cycle by helping you fall asleep faster and awaken less throughout the night. This can also help with jet lag after traveling.

Women who are pregnant or individuals taking blood thinners should not take melatonin. Also, melatonin is not intended for use by children or teenagers, especially for extended periods of time, unless recommended by a physician. According to the NSF, children tend to secrete more melatonin that adults, so supplementation is not typically needed. A physician may recommended melatonin for a child diagnosed with autism or other mental and central nervous system disorders to help improve sleep, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

What to Keep in Mind

When taking a melatonin supplement, it is important to follow dosing instructions carefully. Any type of hormone replacement therapy needs to be taken seriously.

Start with the lowest milligram available, until you know how your body will react to it. Melatonin is not to be taken regularly for extended periods of time. Rather, it is intended as a way to reset your system. For example, taking melatonin at night for one or two weeks will help your body return to its ideal sleeping pattern and then you can stop using the supplement.

There are no serious side effects reported for taking melatonin, but residual drowsiness can occur. Consult your doctor if you are having continued sleeping problems.

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