Even natural sleep aids — which aren't regulated in the U.S. — have risks. A new study reveals why we should be more cautious about taking them.
By now we’ve seen that the pandemic has zero boundaries when it comes to our personal lives and has even ruined sleeping by messing up our pre-pandemic circadian flows. But a new study suggests that even before the pannie, more and more Americans were relying on higher doses of melatonin just to catch some Z’s — despite the fact that they’re often unregulated and sometimes spiked with chemicals such as serotonin. Now, I know that having more serotonin sounds ideal, but the kicker is that the supplement can actually worsen insomnia.
The study, which was published earlier this week on the JAMA Network, found that the number of Americans who reported taking melatonin grew from just 0.4% to 2.1% from 2005 to 2018. Of those, the amount of people who consumed more than the recommended 5 mg/d of melatonin nearly quadrupled during the same time.
The real number might be much higher since melatonin pills are categorized as dietary supplements, which do not require FDA approval to be marketed. Because of that, there are no federal guidelines requiring melatonin pills be tested to ensure they contain the amount advertised, according to CNN, and earlier studies discovered that some supplements had up to 478% more melatonin than their labels advertised.
Although this recent study noted that overall, the number of adults who take melatonin remains relatively low, there’s reason to be concerned about the growing number of us who are relying on it. A common misconception among some who take melatonin is that it’s natural and therefore can’t be bad for you. The reality is that melatonin is still a hormone that is produced in the pineal gland of the brain in response to the dark, according to the NIH, and not some magical property that you’ll find flowing through a stream of a virginal forest. Even though melatonin can be extracted from animals or even plants to be made into pill form, they are most often (and cheaply) created synthetically.
Ultimately, the concern is that there aren’t enough longitudinal studies out there that can tell us what the long-term effects of melatonin are, so we’ve pretty much been raw-dogging it until now. Although taking melatonin in low doses hasn’t been found to have negative health outcomes, the fact that it remains largely unregulated also means that it’s easy to falsely advertise. One study, for example, found that up to 26% of melatonin supplements are spiked with serotonin, which can lead to digestion problems, sleeping difficulties, or even worsen anxiety, per the NHS.
Clinical trials have even found that the efficacy of melatonin supplements isn’t even that impressive — on average, it decreases the amount time it takes people to fall asleep by a meager seven minutes. All in all, melatonin isn’t nearly as tricky as taking prescription pills to sleep (there’s a risk of addiction there), but it might not be as good for you as you think.
Moderation is key and if you decide to take it, make sure it’s from a reliable source and that you’re taking exactly the amount that you intend. For those with insomnia, I know how great it can feel to have a potential solution in a pill and I don’t mean to shatter any illusions. Unfortunately, sleeping problems often require lifestyle adjustments and if possible, a conversation with a doctor. It’s a difficult but necessary truth.